Friday, 31 July 2020

Bir el Gubi

Ah, Bir el Gubi. I first came across a decent account of this battle in FM Lord Carvers 'Tobruk' in the late 1970s while I was eagerly waiting for the release of AHGCs boardgame of the same name. Tobruk the game turned out to be a dice rolling disappointment, and also didn't cover any of Operation Crusader at all, but I remained interested in Bir el Gubi as an asymmetrical engagement.

My first efforts at scenario design for it were for HPS Simulations computer game 'Panthers in the Shadows' back in the mid 90s, and as we are trawling through the western desert again during lockdown, it would have been rude not to have 22nd Armoured Brigade have a tangle with Ariete.

This scenario is based on the one in Frank Chadwicks very fine 'Benghazi Handicap'. I've no idea if the real terrain at Bir El Gubi is really like this, but it makes for a good game and explains why Ariete chose to make a stand at this otherwise unremarkable junction of desert tracks.

The terrain ended up looking like this. The odd orientation (with North at the bottom) is to best suit the webcam angle. Up in the top right is a depression with an escarpment around its eastern and northern edges. I don't think anyone will be going down there.

22nd Armoured Brigade. Front row is 3 and 4 CLY in Crusaders, back row is 4 RHA (25pdrs), 2 RGH (Royal Gloucester Hussars) also in Crusaders and finally B Co, 1KRRC with attached 2pdrs and Bofors guns.

Most of Ariete. Front row are the mixed Bersaglieri infantry/AT/weapons companies the Italians used to man the forward strongpoints, next row back is another Bersaglieri battalion in trucks, Regimental HQ and the regimental recce Co with motorcyclists and AB41 armoured cars. Finally at the back is he artillery, a battalion of 75s a (Corps) battalion of 105s and MILMART, 102mm naval guns mounted on the back of lorries with a few 90mm AA guns too. In the top right corner are two battalions of M13/40 tanks from 132 Armoured Regiment.

Numbers were slightly down on this one, so we had John, Richard and Graham as the British, with Tim G, Simon and Martin S as the Italians with a newly returned Diego as an observer. Unfortunately we had  fews comms problems at the start, issues with sound due to my dodgy internet connection, and I'd cleverly managed to connect the wrong Skype account up for Diego.

As usual, the players had spent a few days plotting and planning, and I had sent me their deployments beforehand. Unlike Fort Capuzzo, I put the Italians on table at start as there was a lot of stuff to keep track of. I told the players that 11th Hussars had been scouting around again.

View from the east. The Italian strongpoints on Hills 169 and 194, and a great mass of transport and guns lurking in and around the wadi.

The Bersaglieri on Hill 169. In the distance (some 2 and a half miles away) a big clump British tanks are moving into view. 4 City of London Yeomanry in CRusaders.

The wadi near Bir el Gubi. The 75s are deployed in  the wadi itself, the reserve Bersaglieri battalion and RHQ on the road ot El Adem. The recce company are over in E7 and MILMART is daringly deployed to dash forward with its 90mm and 102mm autocanone.

Bir el Gubi itself. A rater dubious looking well in the desert, attended by a couple of Arabs from my WW1 Mesopotamia collection. Feel free to drink from the  well if you wish! It is an Irregular shellhole with some rather murky water painted in.

Over in the south, Bir el Belchon is similarly set up. Over in A2 are 3 CLY, another regiment of Crusaders.

The escarpment. I piled up two layers of Hexon to produce the cliff effect, and various 'boulders' from the driveway are scattered around the base. I don't expect anyone will be going down here anytime soon.

4 CLY can dimly discern Italian positions in the distance.

As are 3 CLY. I was slight short of Crusaders for this, so I used A13s as the RHQ squadrons. Over a webcam they all look fairly similar. The bases were originally done for Megablitz, so I'd already helpfully got labels for the various regiments of 22nd AB on some of the models.

MILMART. 90mm AA in the front, 102mm naval guns in the rear. I slightly bodged this as in the original scenario the 90mm guns were attached to the 75s, but a single autocanone unit seemed to make more sense, and was more fun to play with.

The action opened with a headlong charge by the leading British armoured regiments. I would expect nothing less. In fact, faced with a load of dug in Italian infantry and guns and a tank heavy force, there wasn't much else the British could do. The 2pdr armed Crusaders were more effective over-running the Italians than shooting at them. 4 CLY got stuck into Hill 169, just as in real life.

This was a very bloody fight indeed. The Italians eventually succumbed but fought to the last man and took half the British tanks with them. It turned out that trying to winkle infantry out of trenches with 2pdrs was a nasty business.

Over on the other flank, 3CLY replicated that same type of assault. They swept though Bir Belchon and only Hill 194. Another close range fight ensued, at a slightly more sedate pace this time as the Crusaders drove around trying shoot up the trenches an the Italians kept hiding and popping out again.

MILMART had set themselves up on a low rise nearby and plinked away at targets of opportunity. A 4 hex range was really quite useful.

The fight dragged on with losses mounting on both sides.

Over in the centre the Italian recce company got close enough to the British main body to call down some artillery fire, but rapidly discovered that a platoon of AB41s was no match for a regiment of Crusaders. Boom!

The Italian recce fell back to the RHQ at Bir el Gubi, but was pursued by the remains of 4 CLY who crashed into them in another magnificent cavalry charge on tracks.

Another bloody melee ensued. The Italians survived their morale test of 'tank shock' (no doubt steeled by the presence of the regimental commander), but the FOO for the 105s had had enough and routed back to join the 75s in the wadi.

4 RHA had now got the range of MILMART and was dropped shells around their positions. The Italian CB fire scattered wide.

The British main  body pushed up. 1KRRC skirted Hill 169 and 2 RGH advanced past the burning AB41s. MILMART managed to pick off a few Crusaders with long range AT fire.

At this point the first Italian tanks from 132 Armoured Regiment put in an appearance, trundling on via Bir Belchon in the direction of Hill 194. The reserve Bersaglieri deployed in front of the 75s, ready to defend the Bir.

At this point we called it a night. The crisis of the battle was approaching fast as the British armour had lost around a third of its strength but was now firmly embedded in the Italian position. The Italians had lost around half their infantry, but the artillery was completely intact and the 'cavalry' were beginning to arrive. 2 RGH was within charge distance of MILMART, so really it was a question of who go to attack first. Everything to play for!

We all rolled up promptly the next day, and Diego managed to join us successfully this time. Over on Hill 194 the Italian infantry finally succumbed to the mass of Crusaders and settled down to hide in their trenches but not before kocking more tanks out. Tims M13/40s tried to take advantage of the situation with a close assault and managed to roll a magnificent '1' for their morale and fell back in disorder.

Back at Bir el Gubi, 2 RGH also failed their morale test trying to assault MILMART, while 4CLY came under AT fire from all directions and ominous columns of black smoke rose up into the desert air. 4 RHA managed to get some rounds on target and some of MILMARTs lorries went up in smoke.

The Italian RHQ and motorcyclists voluntarily failed their morale and retreated from the mass of British tanks.

The last Crusaders at the Bir were finished off by the 75s firing over open sights and the 47mm AT guns with the reserve Bersaglieri battalion. 1KRRC moved up to the crossroads among the wreckage.

Meanwhile up on Hill 194 things went from bad to worse as 3 CLY became disorganised trying to overrun the Italian infantry and AT guns.  

Meanwhile Tim reorganised his M13/40 battalion, and the remains of MILMART took the advantage of the confusion in the British ranks to fall back and join the Italian tanks. A second battalion of M13/40s rolled up from the south.

Brigadier Scott-Cockburn moved up to rally 2RGH. irl he was sent home after the battle and ended up commanding the Military Records Office in High Barnet. Lt Colonel Birley, CO of 2RGH was wounded in the battle and was awarded the DSO as he continued to direct his regiment from the back of tank with his arm in a sling.

3CLY met a fiery end, surrounded by Italian tanks, artillery and AT guns.

2RGH rallied and  exchanged fire with the Italian tankers. Meanwhile Scott-Cockburn headed off to inspire the KRRC.

Tims recalcitrant tankers managed to fail their morale again and fell back towards Bir Belchon. 4RHA even manged to damage some with 25pdr artillery fire.

1KRRC and the Brigadier assaulted the Bersaglieri next to the crossroads, but the Italian infantry was far more numerous and the survivors fell back in disorder

Meanwhile back up the road, the long range gunnery duel between 2RGH and the M13/40s on the rise was chipping away at both sides but neither was willing to risk a dangerous assault.

The Italian motorcylists rallied, roared up the road to assault the KRRC and promptly failed their morale and withdrew again! The Italian 105mm FOO managed to call in a duff barrage with landed right next to his OP (the shell burst in the foreground). By now 1KRRC were completely disordered, and down to a platoon of infantry with a handful of guns and with another turn to go, the British conceded at that point and withdrew.

View from the Italian RHQ. A great mass of burning tanks in the foreground. By now the barrels of the Italian 75s in the wadi were white hot as they'd been firing continuously for most of the game.

Meanwhile back with 4 RHA, all they could see was lot of smoke in the distance.

I was very pleased with that, it mirrored the real battle closely. IRL the British overran Hill 169 early on, but in the absence of any infantry to take them prisoner, the Italians just remanned  their trenches and guns when the Crusaders moved off. The British tankers ended up milling around deep in the Italian position under a cross fire from all directions, and the counterattack by 132 Armoured Regiment was the last straw and 22nd Armoured Brigade withdrew having lost about 50 tanks. It was a proper Pakfront, which was how the Italians had designed the defences, it was only missing some deep minefields.

The game itself was very see-saw, the Italians looked like they'd had it after the first couple of hours fighting, but gradually the attrition of constant AT fire wore the British down and they suddenly collapsed.


  1. Excellent and as you say, very close to the real thing (I have been re-reading the accounts recently). I think I have spied some lovely looking Western Desert-y stuff on the Baccus website in the last couple of days, so it can't be long before I get to do this theatre myself.

    1. It is one of my favourite desert battles, and I'm glad the game went well. The players really entered into spirit of it, and the reversal of fortune was astonishing. I think we all thought the Italians were doomed halfway through.

      I'm sure the Baccus stuff is lovely, sadly far too big to fit with venerable H&R stuff.

  2. It's a battle I got a bit obsessed with in the course of researching the Western Desert.
    I've never seen a 100% accurate map. There seem to have been 3x Italian positions, one of which was only partly completed from Italian sources.
    I have both British and Italian official histories, 2x CLY regimental and RGH regimental histories as well as an account by IIRC the Italian tank regiment diary. None agree on even the losses; the British have "88"s and Germans present!
    IIRC the Italians had a company of tanks forward of their positions as a "trip wire" which alerted the main forces.

    1. Yes, I'd assumed the recce elements had already found each other as time was limited (and there was a skirmish the evening before).

      As Bir el Gubi scenarios go, I thought Frank Chadwicks version seemed a pretty good effort.

      Again, in the original, the Italians had the option of two or three forward positions, but I made the choice for them as it is complicated enough doing this stuff remotely.

  3. Looks like a great game- very hard fought.