Operation Biting

With the release of the new British paratroops figures, midwar rule book, and Mark’s article about using the rules for skirmishing gaming, we came up with idea for a joint article looking at an early airborne operation (that’s my bit) and then looking at how it might work with the rules and Mark’s ideas on skirmish. Mark might even post a few photos of his newly painted figures too.

I picked the Bruneval raid because it’s just about the first WW2 operation I can remember reading about as a kid (in the old Victor Book for Boys annual), and was undoubtedly the reason why the first ever “toy soldiers” I bought (or to be fair persuaded my grandmother to buy me) was a box of 1/32nd Airfix British paratroops; thus was a life long hobby born.

Chain Home station at RAF Poling
Wurzburg mobile radar set (captured at Bruneval)

Background

There is no doubt that the British Chain Home radar system developed in the 1930’s and operational from 1938 helped save Britain after the collapse of France and the subsequent Battle of Britain. The system gave admirable early warning on direction and height of German aircraft movements and enabled the RAF to counter the Luftwaffe’s air offensive.
However, the system proved less able to deal with Luftwaffe night raids because it did not provide accurate location information to enable night fighters to find the bombers.
When the RAF itself went onto the offensive in early 1941 they found that German night fighters were more able to detect and locate the RAF bombers.
British scientists, led by Robert Watson-Watt, and R V Jones began to fear that German radar technology had overtaken the British (like many things Britain found being first at something is often a curse…..football, rugby, cricket…we invent it and everybody ends up better than us !!). Slight aside here to mention a professional link between myself and Robert Watson-Watt who between 1934-1936 was the President of the Organisation I work for.

Robert Watson-Watt (President IPCS 1934-36)

Extensive photo reconnaissance, Enigma decrypts. interrogations and investigations of crashed Luftwaffe bombers proved this to be the case and identified two linked German radar systems, the Freya system which acted very much like Chain Home, and the smaller Wurzburg system which enabled aircraft interception. What the scientists needed to develop countermeasures was access to an intact Wurzburg system. The scene was set for the Bruneval raid

Bruneval

Photo reconnaisance had identified a Wurzburg site on the clifftop near the village of Bruneval, 12 miles north of Le Havre. The site was protected by extensive coastal defences and so it was thought that a seaborne Commando raid would prove unlikely to succeed, due to likely casualties and the Germans having time to destroy the radar set, so Lord Louis Mountbatten asked the 1st Airborne Division to plan and execute the raid from the air. General Browning the divisional commander was holding 1st Battalion in readiness for a battalion level action, and so it fell to the 2nd Battalion to provide a company for the raid. C Company was selected, commanded by Major John Frost…..a name which you may be familiar with.

John Frost as an officer in the Cameronians

Accompanying C Company would be a 10 man assault section of Royal Engineers and an RAF radar expert Flight Sergeant Cox who would identify, photograph and help dismantle the Wurzburg set. Information about the installation was provided by the French Resistance.

RAF Flt Sgt Charles Cox in retirement

The installation was composed of two distinct areas; a villa approximately 100 yards from the edge of a cliff which contained the radar station itself, and an enclosure containing a number of smaller building which contained a small garrison. The Wurzburg antenna was erected between the villa and the cliff. The radar station was permanently manned by Luftwaffe radar technicians and was surrounded by guard posts and approximately 30 other troops; the buildings in the small enclosure housed about 100 German troops, including another detachment of technicians. A platoon of German infantry was stationed to the south in Bruneval, and was responsible for manning the defences guarding the evacuation beaches; these included a strongpoint near the beach as well as pillboxes and machine gun nests on the top of the cliff overlooking the beach. The beach was not mined and only had a sporadic coverage of barbed wire, but it was patrolled regularly, a mobile reserve of infantry was believed to be available inland on an hour’s notice.

Based on this information Frost decided to divide the company into five groups of forty men for the raid, each named after a famous Royal Navy admiral: “Nelson”, “Jellicoe”, “Hardy” (grand name that !!) “Drake” and “Rondey”. The Nelson group would clear and secure the German positions defending the evacuation beaches, whilst Jellicoe, Hardy and Drake would capture the Radar site, villa and enclosure. Rodney was the reserve formation, placed between the radar site and the main likely line of approach by enemy reinforcements to try and stop any counterattack.

Bruneval site

The operation took place on February 27th and Whitley transport aircraft of 51 Squadron dropped C Company successfully at Bruneval despite having been subject to heavy anti aircraft fire, with the exception of half of the Nelson group who fell two miles beyond the drop zone.  The Jellicoe, Hardy and Drake groups secured the radar installation and villa against little resistance; the majority of the garrison was actually further inland.  However, a substantial number of troops in the enclosure began to fire at the paratroops. Frost then discovered that his radio sets weren’t working and he had no way of contacting the Nelson group to determine whether the beach had been cleared (of course, this wouldn’t be the last time that Frost would have radio problems!). With Cox and the Royal Engineers now having dismantled the Wurzburg set, and enemy vehicles moving into the woods near the enclosure, Frost ordered the assault group to withdraw to the beach.

On nearing the beach it became clear that the understrength Nelson group had not been able to secure the evacuation beach and was being held up by a number of defensive positions, most notably a concrete machine gun post. At the same time the force came under fire from German troops who had reoccupied the villa and were using it as cover. Frost reinforced the Nelson group with the Rodney reserve and took Hardy, Jellicoe and Drake back to clear the villa which he was able to do. On returning to the beach Frost found that it had been secured, the “lost” half of the Nelson group having arrived and taken the concrete post from the flank. There was no sign of the naval evacuation force and no radios to contact them (in fact the navy forces had spent much of the night playing hide and seek with German coastal forces). So old school techniques were applied and a signal flare was fired and the Navy force approached the beach, landing a covering force which covered the embarkation of the paratroops and then re-embarked and left the scene.

RN MGB as used in the extraction

For the loss of two killed, six wounded and six captured C Company had undertaken a text book operation which gave British scientists the chance to examine the Wurzburg system, and design counter-measures to it. In part the Bruneval raid led, after much deliberation, to the decision in 1943 to “open the window” and begin widespread chaff based radar countermeasures, “Window” had a devastating effect on the Wurzburg system, a discovery assisted by the paras of C Company

This Bruneval Memorial

Playing the Raid

This raiding action could of course be used with the normal FOW forces, based around the MW Para formation with some commando formation support.  Pitching it against a grenadier company would be the best fit.  Perfect infantry on infantry action.  Of course the smaller scale of these actions also lends itself to the FOW skirmish rules  we published recently.

With these rules you can recreate the various aspects of the battles detailed above.  Be that a dug in Para blocking force against a German attack attempting to breakthrough their positions or the raid itself.   The rules for parachute drops are in the new Red Devils book (as well as the British Normandy book) and are perfect to depict the initial landings.  Just use the rule as written and then have the teams act independently as per the skirmish rules.  Alternatively, select a point for each team and scatter them D6 inches in a random direction.  Start the enemy force pinned to represent the element of surprise.  

The withdrawal to the beach to the beach could focus around clearing the of a Chateau (or other suitable building) as well as a pillbox.  A platoon of reserves can represent the ‘lost’ part of Nelson’s reserves coming on from a flank to assault the pillbox.

Skirmish games are fantastic for narrative play; it really is down to you and your opponent to set a table up as per the description above and recreate part of the battle.  If you had a really large table you could even represent the whole thing, I would love to see that, as your raiding force falls back to the beach and your other forces move in to secure it.

I suggest limiting your forces to the Red Devils book and the Germans to the MW books formed around a grenadier formation. A couple of armoured cars should be the extent of the armour; this isn’t a tank battle.  Also don’t forget the night fighting rules!

Have fun and let us know if you try it out.

Category: BritishFlames of WarGermansMid Warmissions

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Article by: Richard Hardy