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The Flare Path: A Rumble Of Thunder

30 years a wargamer and I still can't spell 'reconaissance'

Anyone eager to spend a modest portion of their Friday shaking their head and tutting while a tactical halfwit sends virtual Soviet soldiers to their deaths, is in luck. A lend-lease version of the close-to-release Combat Mission: Red Thunder‎ has just been craned onto my bustling quay by my bustling stevedore, Steve Dore. Give me a second to finish my molotov cocktail, quietflowsthedon my ushanka, and retrieve my Bumper Book of Annoying Russian Clichés, and we can get started.

There are twenty one scenarios available to Red Thunderers not in the mood for campaigning or semi-random 'quick' engagements. One called 'Baronovichi' catches my eye. A medium-sized late-war (July 5, 1944) Soviet attack in bright midday sunshine, the briefing promises pacey armoured antics.

“The mission requires audacity... Your cavalry command will continue the proud tradition of rapid reconnaissance... Don't get bogged down... Continue advancing in the Hussar tradition.”

With a belly full of fairtrade caffeine, a week of Qvadriga speed duels behind me, and a Flare Path deadline so close I can smell its aftershave ('Bravado'. For Men.) audacity shouldn't be a problem. In fact I've always fancied myself rather good at audacity.

No, wait, it's actually recklessness I'm rather good at. Oh well, too late now. I've just clicked the 'Fight!' button.

The titular town/objective lies just beyond the northern map edge. My souped-up Soviet steamroller starts on the southern one. Dollying North, I pass through a mile or so of jumbled forests and fields before reaching the 'Old Defensive Line ', a low ridge scarified by the shells of an earlier scrap. If I was the German AI, that's where I'd put most of my Panzers and Pak guns.

Bypassing the ridge isn't an option (it runs the entire width of the map) but I do get to decide how I approach it. The quickest avenue of approach - a central road straddled by spruces at the southern end and bare of cover at the ridge end - has the potential to be the costliest. After five minutes of Zhukov-channelling and scenario designer second-guessing, I decide to split my company-sized force into three distinct elements. The imaginatively titled Western Element, comprised of half-a-dozen infantry-laden T-34-85s and a few trucks - will roll northward up the western map side, while a much smaller and hopefully, more nimble force - the Centre Element - comprised of three T-70s, a single T-34 and a handful of recon troops, investigates that central road. Being the proud holder of an NVQ in Hedge-Betting, I can't resist committing a small force to the eastern flank of the battlefield too. Three T-34s will, with luck, clear a path for five GAZ troop taxis on that side.

If the briefing author wants haste, haste is what he's going to get. The only folk that start the first turn without a 'quick' waypoint to their name, are the men crewing my four 82mm mortars. They'll lounge by their tubes until the radio messages start arriving.

Five sixty-second turns pass before the woodpecker-tattoo of gunfire is heard. A T-34 at the head of Western Element, is hosed with rifle and SMG rounds as it snakes through a belt of trees. I look on as an injured tank rider drops from the engine deck, and breathe a small sigh of relief when a PPSh-41 fusillade convinces the ambushers - seemingly a handful of Panzerfaust-less stragglers - to press their faces into the leaf litter.

That sigh has barely left my lips when a dainty T-70 on the central road runs into another ramshackle reception committee. Damn. All four passengers are bullet-plucked from its hull as the following light tank endeavours to suppress the threat. Should I take my foot off the gas... start mixing the 'quick' orders with some 'moves' and 'hunts'? No, must stay strong... the hussar tradition and all that.

BOOOM! One of the 1:72 paratroopers on my monitor has just fallen over. The concussion that felled him was produced by... give me a second while I rewind the action phase videotape and scan the battlefield... an enraged T-34. Eastern Element has sustained its first casualty (a tank rider) and obliterated its first road-bump. You've got to hand it to these rag-tag German retreaters. They aren't afraid to open up, even when the consequences are fairly predictable.

Bah. That dried-up river bed wasn't quite as dry as it looked. Centre Element have reached the exposed portion of the main road and a T-70, seeking low ground on my orders, has managed to immobilize itself in soft mud. One of my three recon tanks is now a poorly-sited steel pillbox.

I can see it's going to take me a while to adjust to Combat Mission's new tankodesantniki. I've just lost another clutch of tank riders to small-arms fire. They seem to cling on when the lead starts flying, rather than automatically abandoning ship the way they do in Graviteam Tactics. Time to issue some dismount orders... revoke a few of those battlebus passes.

Not a moment too soon! As two Western element tanks halt to deposit their passengers, a Flakpanzer emerges from the woods in front of them. The German crew seem as surprised as we are. They've barely had time to raise their armoured gun skirts, and unleash their first volley, when a Soviet AP shell punches a neat hole in their bow plate (Hit decals at long-last!). That shell is in an awful hurry. Using rewind, I watch it burrow back into the sunlight through the rear of the Panzer's engine compartment, and travel on before finally encountering the thickest armour in the game: the Earth's crust.

In CM, glee can turn to dismay in the time it takes to type 'In CM, glee can turn to dismay in the time it takes to type...'. A split-second after claiming my first tank scalp, I lose a T-70 close to the central road. Scuttling for cover, something, probably a far-off TD or AT gun, pots it with a single shell. If that wasn't bad enough, there's also a Panther on the warpath in the west. A Zimmerit-plastered big cat has padded into view very close to the carcass of that skewered Flakpanzer. It's two versus one, but the two T-34s, sitting in the middle of a field, have nowhere to hide if hiding becomes necessary.

If that Panther wanted vengeance, it's come this close to getting it. A shell has just penetrated the weapon mount of the Flakpanzer foiler, slaying one of the crew in the process. The holed T-34 starts reversing in panic (God knows where it thinks it's going). Is its main gun kaput? Will its steadfaster comrade suffer the same fate? Find out after the screenshot.

Phew. That could have gone either way. Ivan infantry are currently advancing past a flame-wreathed Panther hulk but they could just as easily have been fleeing back across the field, MG 34 bullets nipping at their heels. As my dismounts move into the woods, they happen upon a foe tending a wounded comrade. I watch helpless and faintly disgusted as PPSh-41s judder and the first-aider crumples.

It's hard to believe only ten in-game minutes have elapsed. At this rate (It's meant to be a 90-minute battle) I won't just miss today's deadline, I'll miss next week's too. Must pick up the pace!

Which might be tricky in the light of the Pak 40 recently spied by West Element's vanguard. Sneaking towards the 'Old Defensive Line' through thick woods (The 'hussar tradition' never really suited me) the gun appears amongst the trenches and craters in the centre of the ridge. It looks like 'The Old Defensive Line' is also 'The New Defensive Line'. Yep, no doubt about it now. Two dead T-34s in as many minutes! There seem to be... three tanks... possibly Panthers, lurking just behind the crest. I think it's time I roused those mortarmen from their slumbers.

I never tire of watching CMx2 mortar salvos arrive. The Pak 40 and Panzers are soon hidden behind a veil of churning dust and dancing mud. When the dust clears, one of my Western Element tanks, repositioned and ordered to unbutton in preparation for a shot, spots one of the mortar-drunk trio (actually a Pz IV not a Panther) and dispatches it. Another T-34, sent along the western map edge in the hope of gaining a similar firing opportunity, is less fortunate. It's Panthered milliseconds before it can get off a shot.

After the full-throttle dynamism of the first fifteen minutes, the battle seems to have found its blood-spattered balance point. Men huddle behind pine trunks. Allied tank commanders wait patiently for orders from a general too distracted by the gaggle of grey icons appearing in the woods on the eastern side of the road to think about advancing. Could this be the start of one of the counter-attacks hinted at in the briefing... evidence of the improved AI flexibility new battle editor behaviour triggers make possible? Speculation turns to alarm when one of the icons morphs into a Panther. Happily, the Panther in question decides to show its relatively thin side armour to a watchful Western Element T-34.

Eager to outflank any possible eastern sally, I send two Eastern Element tanks barrelling down the map edge. (Don't look to your right, men! Your brains will melt.) The move proves inspired. I've now got two 85mm guns and four LMGs overwatching a gully that any meaningful enemy counter-attack would have to cross. Perhaps unsurprisingly the two(?) Panthers lurking in the eastern wood now seem reluctant to press on. After euthanising my bogged T-70, they sit tight while I pit their paintwork with mortar bombs, and edge my overwatchers closer and closer.

The Combat Missions burn particularly brightly in situations like these. When it comes to small-scale armoured cat-and-mouse, CM can be unbearably, exquisitely, tense. Keen to improve the spotting capability of my pair of nervy Panther hunters, I order them to unbutton. For one T-34 the decision proves disastrous (the TC is sniped by an unseen rifleman seconds after he peeps from his hatch). For the other, however, it works wonders. An armoured adversary is spotted and neutralised. The trick almost works a second time from a new position, but on this occasion the shell spooks rather than slays.

At this point, a sensible CO would pause and take stock, not encourage a frustrated hunter to enter an unscouted copse in search of an alerted foe. My ludicrous target fixation costs me an irreplaceable tank. It means, twenty minutes later, when I finally conquer the ridge, losing two more T-34s to an incredibly plucky/lucky Pak 40 in the process, my armoured force is a shadow of its former self. With 45 minutes left on the battle clock, a good quarter of the battlefield still unsecured, and counter-attacks a very real possibility, next week's half of this battle ballad promises to be short and heavy on the self-reproach.


The Flare Path Foxer

My Chief Foxer Setter, Roman, assured me that last week's puzzle was Matchstick-proof. It was. But only for twenty minutes. Aided by FurryLippedSquid, stahlwerk, and Gusdownnup, the wooden wonder rooted out the Roald Dahl subtext in record time. Later, Smion popped in to quote a pertinent passage from 'A Piece of Cake'...

“Those old Gladiators aren’t made of stressed steel like a Hurricane or a Spit. They have taut canvas wings, covered with magnificently inflammable dope, and underneath there are hundreds of small thin sticks, the kind you put under the logs for kindling, only these are drier and thinner. If a clever man said, ‘I am going to build a big thing that will burn better and quicker than anything else in the world,’ and if he applied himself diligently to his task, he would probably finish up by building something very like a Gladiator.”

.. and foop stopped by to identify an extremely obscure cocoa shunter, but by then the Golden Ticket was long gone.

a) Matilda Baron

b) Aeronca Champion

c) Crocodile

d) Night Witches

e) Cadbury Bournville 0-4-0

f) Little Nellie (Dahl wrote the screenplay to You Only Live Twice)

g) Gloster Gladiator (one of the types flown by the author during WW2)

h) Stalingrad Grain Elevator war memorial

i) TPz Fuchs

Upper Bumhope never lets Commonwealth Day pass without some form of commemorative event. This year we had a 'Soldiers of the Empire' procession. Colonel Herrington up at the manor, gave the organisers access to his extensive collection of uniforms. His only stipulation was a geographic one. Paraders had to parade in the longitudinal order implied by their garments. Working eastward from the Prime Meridian, Greenwich (A person wearing the uniform of the Buffs would have a very good chance of leading the march. One wearing Yeoman Warder togs would almost certainly bring up the rear.) work out the order of the procession.

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