Hampshire - well, my little corner of it - is all fire and brimstones at present. A Spring-enthused Mother Nature is providing the Brimstones. A preview build of Battlefront's Combat Mission: Battle For Normandy is supplying the fire. Beyond the html hedgerow below, you'll find a first-hand account of my second brush with this realism-rammed game-o'-war. Fingers-crossed, you'll also find numerous pictures of kaput Panzers and surrendering Stormtruppen.
As there are no campaign or historical scenarios available in this build, skirmishing starts with a waltz round the Quick Battle customisation screen.
Right. I've just committed myself to a small 45-minute village attack against a mixed German force. The Jerries will be selecting their own troops and vehicles. The Yanks will be cherrypicked by Yours Truly. Actually, for historicism's sake, let's let the software have a say too. Clicking 'Suggestions' the CPU spends my precious points allotment on:
1 x dismounted Armoured Infantry Platoon (HQ, 3 x Infantry Squad, 1 x HMG, 1 x MMG, 1 x Light Mortar)
1 x dismounted Armoured Infantry Platoon (HQ, 3 x Infantry Squad, 1 x MMG, 1 x Light Mortar, 1 x Forward Observer, + 1 x M4(105) Sherman tank)
1 x dismounted Motorized Engineer Platoon (HQ, 3 x Engineer Squad, 2 x HMG, 1x MMG)
1 x Mortar Platoon (3 x 81mm Mortar)
Hmm. Plausible, but with just that lone Sherman, a little light on AT and mobile infantry support for my taste. I think I'll trade-in the first of those infantry platoons and use the 500 points received to buy:
1 x Air Support Element (light rockets)
1 x Sniper Team (crack)
1 x M10 Tank Destroyer
1 x M8 Armoured Car
All of the above are purchased without offending the sensibilities of the QB's clever, optional rarity watchdog. If the events of the next 45 turns culminate in an Allied victory, I'll know I won using a force that wouldn't have raised too many sweat-soaked eyebrows in August '44 France. If I lose I'll be able to console myself by grumbling authentically about the pressing need for more Sherman Calliopes and pack howitzers in the Cotentin.
TURN 1. My first look at the venue (I gamely refused the offer of sneak-peak during unit purchasing). My eager/nervous soldiery are crammed into the NW corner of a flat tract of French farmland. To the south, several fields away, is the edge of a village no doubt crawling with determined Deutschlanders. Besides a narrow hedge-shielded corridor up the western side of the map, there are no obvious opportunities for flanking or sly advances. Something tells me this could get bloody.
TURN 2. Concerned about the throng of men and materiel in the deployment zone, I begin to move squads out into nearby hedgerows. The M8 Greyhound armoured car is sent scurrying along the highway that runs like a leaf midrib down the centre of the map. Such a bold scouting manoeuvre is a little out of character, but as Greyhounds were built to reconnoitre, it seems a shame not to let mine fulfil its destiny.
TURN 3. Nuts. That Greyhound's destiny turned out to be cylindrical and made from steel alloy. A couple of hundred metres down the road, the little canine rounds a corner, spots and - a split-second later- is slain by a stationary Pz IV sitting surprisingly close to my end of the battlefield. The hit text tells me that the fatal shell entered through the turret front. One shot, one kill. Not an encouraging start.
TURN 4. Worming their way into the thick strips of Gallic undergrowth that hem many of the map's fields, my men begin to spot and engage other threats. Close to that smug Panzer, a Pak 40 AT gun lurks behind a low wall. From a hedgeline beyond the cornfield that dominates the NW corner of the arena, knots of feldgrau-coloured defenders send rifle and MG 34(?) rounds whipping towards twitching foliage.
TURN 5. Time to get some payback on that Pz IV. With no high ground or lofty structures for my FO team to eerie in, I've inched them into a hedegrow with line-of-sight to the Greyhound assassin. Now all I've got to do is call-in a winged rocket-slinger. An action that turns out to be easier said than done. For some reason - doubtless explained in the pdf manual I've foolishly failed to read - all my off-map assets appear to be 'DENIED'. Did my FO team forget to bring a radio? Did I fail to complete a K7/J682 requisition form before the battle? No idea. All I know is that a sticky task just got stickier.
TURN 6. With aerial salvation looking unlikely (I'm relocating my FO team in the hope of activating their powers) I decide there's no option but to attempt to remove the Panzer-shaped roadblock with the help of my own armour. The M10 with its 76mm HVAP dispenser, is the natural candidate for this dangerous duty. I reposition it with some hasty move commands (Sadly, it's going to have to be a frontal shot) then order it to 'hunt' up to a promising hedgerow. A 'cover arc' spread over the as-yet-out-of-LOS target means the TD shouldn't get distracted as it advances.
TURN 7. Got 'im. Textbook tankicide. The M10 creeps forward until the gunner has the Pz IV in his telescope. A second or two later the US trundler is rocking on its suspension as the faraway Panzer disappears behind a pall of terminal smoke.
TURN 8. Still nervous about that Pak 40 and the achingly open cornfield on the closest and most direct attack route, I waypoint two squads of infantry and the M4(105) Sherman down the narrow hedge-screened strip of pasture on the western edge of the map. With luck I may be able to sidestep the lion's share of the village's defences, even inveigle troops directly into the enemy's rear. Towards the east the terrain is less propitious, but a large, seemingly unoccupied farm complex looks like it might offer a decent jumping-off point for attacks into the village. Assuming, that is, my men can cross the open ground in front of it without too many losses. I send two squads and an HMG team scampering eastward with this in mind.
TURN 9. Incoming HE! Phew, no, just ammo cooking-off inside that blazing Panzer.
TURN 10. My sniper team is finally in a position to engage the Pak 40 behind the wall. A couple of enemy gunners discover this the hard way. The remaining crew (both unexpectedly eagle-eyed) decide to deter further sharpshooting with a few rounds of 75mm HE. The shells are wayward, but do the trick.
TURN 12. In the east, engineers steel themselves for the dash to the farm complex. For the first hundred yards Lady Luck is all grins and giggles, then a sergeant crumples into the herbage. Are his men going to stop? Go to ground? Ah, splendid, they keep moving, reaching the sheltering bosom of the farmhouse exhausted but battle-fit.
TURN 14. In the west, my attempt to obscure a crucial enemy fire-lane with smoke, continues to fail in comical fashion. The force awaiting the veil remain huddled metres away from enemy MG-34s. In reality wouldn't some curious Fritz with a Panzerfaust have investigated the throb of a 9-cylinder Continental engine by now?
TURN 16. Choking on their own ineptly laid smoke screen, West Force pile across the lane into the edge of the village. German muzzles swing to engage them. Several GIs are cut down but the majority of the flankers, and the vital Sherman support tank that accompanies them, make it into the protective lee of a Normandy house. At last, we're dans le village!
TURN 18. Having recovered from the exertions of their cross-field sprint, East Force are now ready to assault the Pak 40 positioned on the other side of the barns. The assault isn't nearly as decisive as I'd have liked. Grenades are hurled, a gunner appears to perish, but, raked with supporting fire from other German positions, the engies ultimately decide to abandon the action and fall back to the rear of the farmhouse. Maybe if they'd had an HQ nearby they'd have stuck to their guns. I really should be trying to keep my platoons together.
TURN 20. With a scattering of houses and hedges between it and the two Pak 40s (a second gun has now been sighted 500 metres or so south of the first) West Force are free to hook round towards the objective - a sturdy two-storey structure in the centre of the village. With the invaluble help of the Sherman's 105mm problem solver, several enemy infantry squads are put to flight. For the first time I scent the faint whiff of victory.
TURN 22. Blimey. A shell just whistled past the turret of my hellraising Sherman. I'd assumed there was nothing hostile between West Force and the southern end of the map. I was wrong. It seems there's a shy German shell slinger sat at the back of the battlefield. My tank has its arse to this as-yet-unidentified AT threat and is some way from potential cover. I'm going to order it to turn its tougher frontal armour towards the foe, but, honestly, don't expect it to survive long enough to complete the manoeuvre.
TURN 23. An improbable escape. The gunners crewing what turned out to be another Pak 40 fired several more shots at my hopelessly exposed Sherman. All of them slammed into an intervening wall. Good fortune? A ballistics or AI quirk? Not sure. All I know is that this woeful gunnery gave my tank time to turn, and one of my infantry squads opportunity to bundle forward and pour fire onto the artillery piece. At roughly the moment the lifesaving section of wall finally disintegrates, a 105mm shell and shots from my infantry ensure the gun won't speak again.
TURN 25. Having proven the viability of both the western and eastern infiltration routes, I'm now pushing infantry and support teams up both sides of the map. The stubborn Pak 40 that resisted the first engineer assault finally succumbs to a second rush from a fresh squad. In the moments before it falls, a crewman can be seen gamely defending his weapon with a levelled Luger.
TURN 28. Battered from front and sides, broken German squads drift back towards the objective only to find themselves caught in vicious crossfire delivered by the Sherman and soldiers of a bolstered West Force. In the far south of the map some of these remnants give a good account of themselves, repelling a house assault mounted by one of my engineer squads. There's still fight in the foe.
TURN 30. Though my 81mm mortar battery still isn't answering the phone, and the air support I'd paid 179 good points for remains 'DENIED', my on-map light mortar has finally made a small contribution to the carnage. A few seconds ago it dropped some death pears on the last surviving Pak 40. Barring panzerfausts, panzerschrecks, AT grenades, mines(?), and any undetected AT guns and AFVs, the village is now perfectly safe for my M10.
TURN 31. The objective zone is dominated by a two-storey building. Having slammed a few tank shells into this structure, I figure it's now ripe for occupation. Seven men dart across the road and pile in through the frontdoor. Thirty seconds later six emerge looking worried. They've just had their fillings rattled by a panzerschreck rocket fired from the garden on the other side. Once again I realise the vulnerability of my cocky battle-changing Sherman, and resolve to reverse it back to a more sensible distance.
TURN 32. A second, less nervy infantry squad advances on the objective building. This time the Panzerschreck team can't stop them.
TURN 33. Crikey. Rather than fight to the bitter end, those sensible Germans have surrendered. Using Battlefront's criteria I've won a 'Total Victory'. Using unofficial Grim Reaper Rules, it's 37 - 20 to the Allies. Not bad considering two of my key assets were AWOL and my 'battle plan' had more holes in it than an MG 34 barrel shroud.
Feelings towards CM:BfN based on this brief beta taste? Some of my AI and infantry misgivings remain, but I'm more certain than ever that this is a game I'm going to be playing regularly over the coming year.