Desert Rats – Version 4 Army Book review

There’s a certain sense of deja-vu to this review.  My first ever purchase for Flames of War was the original V1  Desert Rats book (WD104 – a massive £13, back in the day!), way back in December 2005.  61 pages of background, painting guides and 5 lists (Heavy and Light Armoured Squadrons, Motor Company and Armoured Car Squadrons, plus the Death or Glory squadron for Tunisia) in a books whose presentation seemed a quantum leap over the dull WWII rule sets we had previously looked at whilst trying to break away from Warhammer 40K!

Since then, the desert has been a habitual stomping ground for my games, even as V2 and V3 took the war to Europe.  There’s just something evocative of eclectic tanks like the M3 Grant manoeuvring and fighting in the desert!

So, here I sit, older and wiser (ha!) in 2017, with a pdf of the V4 Desert Rats book.  We’ve come a long way, baby.

Just like my figure painting

Presentation and Background

The book is 48 pages of full colour content including background, painting guides and the formations (Grant squadron, Honey Squadron, Crusader Squadron and Motor Rifle Company) and support units.  The layout of the book is very much in the style of the Team Yankee army books, with a similar layout of information.

The more I look at it the more I think the Boys gunner is using a dead guy to rest the bipod on…

Looking at the background section in particular, we get a page setting the scene as to why you should play the Brits –including some notes on the fashion sense of the average cavalry tankee, a brief interlude to cover the special rules for the Desert Rats (more on that later) then 7 pages outlining the war to date, the major battles of 1942 (Gazala and the two battles of El Alamein) in some detail, before covering the events post El Alamein in a paragraph (1943, a half year really, gets a little bit short changed compared to the fairly momentous events of 1942!).  A timeline on the bottom of these pages shows the major events up to 13th May 1943 and we get some well presented maps to explain the Division level movements in the three 1942 battles.

No Desert War briefing would be complete without long curvy arrows – usually bending back on themselves

We then get two pages of “know your tanks” which provides the real world stats and brief notes on the major AFV (including the Humber armoured car and Universal Carrier) used by the Desert Rats., over-layed over what I presume are the new models (very tasty looking they are too).  This is immediately followed by photos of the new kit (for both sides) in action.  The new kit looks very fancy and, whilst I’m already well equipped with Honeys and Grants, the Crusaders are very tempting.

The background section is finally rounded out by a page dealing with the historical order of battle for 7th Armoured with page links to the four formations of note (Grant, Honey, Crusader and Motor rifles).  This works especially well as the next page over is the Desert Rats Force Formation which helps one visualise how the historical OoB flows into the Flames Of War one.

Its at this point that I wonder if I will ever see a 1:1 recreation of 7th Armoured in 15mm…  I guess even a Brigade would be impressive!

A bit like the Team Yankee books, the book isn’t strictly a “generic” armoured brigade but following specific real life units from 7th armoured as example formations.  This is kind of what one would expect for a historical wargame so is very welcome but it does create an issue which I’ll address in the conclusion.

After this, each formation is preceded by a page of text covering the real life unit history (Royal Scots serving as an example of a Grant formation, for example) and force structure before being followed up by the actual ‘in-game’ structure and units.

Some people will just want to get as many 6pdr in as possible and some will want to recreate a historical unit
– the lists allow both but the background certainly helps steer the latter.

All in all, the background section works well for laying out the background of the war in the desert and how it impacted the British Forces.  Whilst the V4 books lacks some of the colour text of its V1 fore-bearer (the glossary section alone of the sub-language that desert veterans talked in was a worthwhile section that sadly got dropped in the move from “Afrika” to “North Africa”) what it does have is more than sufficient.  The real world Order of Battles also serves to provide a player, such as myself, wanting to follow a “real world” structure some guidance on how to manipulate the relatively open force structure to their will.

The lists and units

As with all army books, the real reason for existing is the lists!

Special Rules

Firstly, lets look at the special rules that the British are given.  ‘Broadsides’, ‘Multiple Weapons’ and ‘Semi-Indirect Fire’ are gone.  ‘Tally Ho’ is now a benefit/penalty of sorts (granting an extra +2 to the tactical move we can move and fire at – albeit at RoF1, but at the penalty of passing tactics checks on a 5+, not the normal 4+ of trained) and ‘No HE’ has changed so that the main gun can hit guns and infantry, but at an extra +1. An improvement at least!  Sadly the three tank units also suffer from “fight another day” – generally the tanks units, will call it quits on a 5+ rather than the normal 4+.  Given they are almost always three-strong  tank units, at a detriment to the new morale rules of V4 where a unit will test once there is only tank or less operational, this is a massive change and means British tank units will be a somewhat flaky proposition, melting under sustained fire.

Lets look at the lists now.  For those unfamiliar with the idea of Formations, the Formation takes what we would have once called the HQ, Combat and some Weapon platoons of a V3 company diagram and packages it into a self contained flow diagram.  We can stack up multiple formations in a force, each with their own HQ unit, and the formations will not run if another formation runs (that said, formations will automatically run once below a set level so be wary of having multiple, weak, formations).  We can then take support from the force diagram.  This force support is universal and independent of the formations taken.

The three armoured formations are all variants on a theme.  They all consist of a multi-tank HQ unit (CO, plus supporting tanks.  2iC don’t exist per-se, but the CO will automatically switch to another nearby HQ unit tanks so consider them insurance), plus 3-5 (depending on type, two are always mandatory) Combat units.  The second mandatory choice can usually be a different type of tank (so if a Grant formation, a Crusader or Honey) so you can get a fair bit of variety in the force in a single formation.

Grant Squadron

Combined Arms is going to be the name of the game

The Grant squadron is the smallest formation with only three Units + HQ in its force.  It also has the smallest HQ unit at 2-3 Grants. Given some units like 3RTR operated with four troops I can only presume that something about the Scots Guard is driving this limitation.

The Grant is the tank that probably bears the biggest change in V4.  In V3 it was, at least as I used it, a long range fire support platform, using its 32” main gun (with smoke and HE, a rarity!) and semi-indirect fire to support the cruiser tanks.  In V4, semi-indirect fire is gone and the main gun has suffered a cut in range to 24” – now being out ranged by the long 5cm of the PzIII and the long 7.5 of the PzIV.  Whilst a disappointing revision, we clearly we have to accept a bit more risk and a drop in accuracy in the long range support role!  On the plus side, the Grant gains a better remount than the cruisers (essentially protected ammunition – something it never had previously), a better side armour (up from 3 to 4) and, unlike the Cruisers, its stated as “Careful” so is hit on a veteran-esque 4+, whilst still counting as Trained for skill checks.

Careful?  You’d want to be in a Grant!

The 37mm turret gun is still present, but it gains HE, the RoF drops to 2, and it is now a “secondary weapon” meaning it will always fire at RoF 1 and +1 to hit if the hull gun fires.  This limits its utility slightly but given it rarely fired as the main weapon of choice, and used to suffer a +1 if the tank moved anyway, its not a huge change (although I’m sure I’ll curse it the first time I need to deal with a flanking PzIII whilst still smoking that AT gun so the Honey can assault).

I think having a Grant unit in a cruiser unit, plus one in the formation support, will definitely be a good step but I worry that a Grant formation, with only three brittle units, will find itself running very quickly.  The truth will be in the execution though.

Crusader Squadron

Needs more smoke being kicked up!

Next up is the Crusader formation.  The Crusader sees a drop in armour from V3 (3 instead of 4, although the III stays at the higher level) and loses the ability to maintain its RoF on the move.  It does gain a much faster tactical (move and shoot) distance of 14” (10” for most tanks) and a faster dash distance compared to the Grant – emphasising the Christie suspension and shoulder gun laying of the Cruiser tank series and still allowing it go for the side armour shots.
The Crusader III also benefits from this faster speed (it never used to) but suffers a +1 to hit on the move due to the “overworked” crew.  Still – it’s on balance a big boon for the Crusader III.
Finally the Crusader CS tank can now bombard (HE and smoke) but is a mandatory purchase (a HQ unit consists of 2 CS tanks and 1-2 Crusader II tanks).

The reduced morale for break tests means the three tank Crusader units will need some jockeying to preserve their strength whilst maximising their punch, but the 7pt platoon cost for 2 Crusader III and a Crusader II makes a Crusader squadron a very attractive choice.

Stuart Squadron

See, like that!

Finally for the tank formations, we have the Honey Stuart.  Always my favourite desert tank, thanks to excellent turn of speed and large number of MG, the Stuart doesn’t feel like it gets much from the switch to V4.  It can still out-dash any tank in the desert, including the Crusader – but its ‘tactical’ move is now only 12” but still gets the full penalty of Tally Ho (pass tactics check on a 5+).  This is a shame as I think it could have been a more accurate reflection of the “dash, halt, shoot” tactics of the Stuart if they had kept the standard 10” tactical move but not suffered the Tally Ho penalty.  It also loses out, again probably for a better reflection of historical reality, on not being able to execute a 20” assault (16” light tank move plus 4” charge to contact) due to the limit on not moving faster than 10” prior to a charge to contact.  It does keep its machine gun fire with 5 shots (static or otherwise) and a unique self defence AA capability compared to its two stablemates.

As it is, the Stuart still sets its self up for the flanking role with its dash speed, positioning itself for a turn 2 pounce.  Like the Crusader, it gains a small boon from being able to at least hit AT guns with its main gun (albeit on a +1 to hit).  The Stuart company also benefits from a decent 4 units (one of which can be a Grant formation) + a up to four-tank HQ unit in each formation making it a fairly steadfast choice so long as unit causalities are controlled.

Motor Company

With tanks done, its now on to the Infantry.  The Motor Company keep the eclectic mix of units we all know and love from the North Africa book with a mandatory rifle platoon, a mandatory scout platoon and a mandatory choice between an extra rifle platoon or a 6pdr platoon.  We also get a 2 gun mortar section, a MMG section, a second 6pdr section and a further 2 Scout patrols.  It’s a sizeable formation!

Motor Company – for when you can’t decide what you want so take everything.

What isn’t sizeable is the Motor Rifle platoon, with only 4 MG teams, a light mortar and a single ATR – although that is no great difference to what its ever been.  The big change is that you only get 1 ATR (no more, no less) but can have a smaller squad of 3 MG should you really want to lost the platoon quickly.  The Rifles do demonstrate the possibilities of the new stat cards by allowing the Rifles to hit like veterans, be hit like veterans but pass skill checks like trained troops.  Why this is is perhaps more difficult to discern – the British infantry were just as experienced as their axis counterparts so it just seems like a way of stymieing their ability to pass tactical checks and place an artificial differentiation between the two sides – Germans are more mobile whilst British rule assaults through having a better counterattack (3+ rather than 4+ – ‘British Bulldog’ lives on).

The 6pdr is now dismounted with no Portee in sight – not even a better dash speed which is what I assumed would be the case to reflect the widespread use of the portee transport.  The 6pdr does become fearless with a  3+ save and a “careful” to hit rating so they have excellent staying power but this comes at the cost of a lower RoF (2) and a reversion to the old V1 AT rating of 9.

The Scout carrier is no longer the MG toting Marder/gun hunting badass of the previous versions as the .50 stays off and its assault value drops from a veteran skill check of 3 to 5; plus a counterattack value of 6, but it does get an improvement to its FA to 1.  You do get a cheap Scout/Spearhead unit for this, and all three can receive a Boys AT rifle (middling stats buts its an extra option for the cheap cost of 1pt for the whole platoon).  It certainly emphasises its scout role.

As popularised in “Scouting with Boys (ATR)”

The 3” mortars gain the benefit of the higher firepower that all artillery is receiving and can launch smoke but only two tubes will limits its HE effectiveness.  The Vickers MMG is much as it was in terms of direct fire stats, gaining a better save and its bombardment also gains a stat of AT1 and FP6 – it can do more (not much more, admittedly) than harass!  Both support weapons may have their use; but I suspect they’ll be fitting in to use surplus points rather than must have units,

All in all, I think there may be some room for an Infantry formation to support a tank formation.  Its something I’ll explore in use and report back on at a later date.  Right now I’ll probably just stick to a Rifle Platoon and Scout Platoon in support though.

Force Support

Finally, we start to get to support.

Firstly we have the ever excellent 25pdr.  No longer bought in 8 gun batteries, we can have up to three 4 gun batteries and use the “Mike Target” rule to bring them all together in one bombardment should we wish.  The 25pdr is now a hybrid of Horse and Field versions with the Royal Horse Artillery’s 3+ motivation but the new version of the “Mike Target” rule replacing  “Horse artillery”.  They also get a proper “veteran” stat so should pass the dig-in checks with some reliability.  Most importantly, the 25pdr retains its high AT and RoF basically making it a large 6pdr whilst its artillery bombardment is now a 4+ firepower check.  Its not going to be hard justifying at least four guns in an army.

Of course if you have the guns you’ll need an OP and the Stuart steps into that role.  Its ‘veteran’ so can jockey to get a better view on a ‘blitz’ and remains ‘careful’ and ‘scout’ making it hard to hit. It can even fire its main gun – albeit on a RoF1.  But handy if the enemy scout cars decide to try and pick a fight!

The Humber Scout car is the only representation of the divisional cavalry – sadly no Armoured Car list, nor any Marmons, AEC or Daimlers.  The Humber is slower than the Universal Carrier but better armed and armoured whilst also being a true veteran.  If you want your recce to do something after performing its Spearhead (noting that this may be compromised slightly by its slower terrain dash speeds), it is probably the better option.

The Bofors makes up our anti-aircraft contingent (what ever happened to the 20mm Portee…) – its got a lower ROF at 3 shots but is otherwise unchanged.

20mm BREDA portee  MIA since V2

The RAF makes its showing with the 40mm armed Hurricane D which seems, frankly, a little under-powered at only AT7 – quite a big hit from its AT11 days and certainly not the guaranteed opener of Panzers that it was.  You also only get 2 shots per aircraft although that’s probably a fair reflection of what you generally achieved with the old template method!  Sadly the bomb armed versions of the Hurricane don’t make an appearance.

Up to this point Battlefront would have been on for a good set of briefings for the British Armour in the run up to the second battle of El Alamein.  Nothing more punchier than a Grant would be in line with that and whilst one may quibble about the lack of armoured car options or 6pdr portee, one would otherwise feel it was a safe opening move to be built upon providing lists that are in character with the units chosen.

Then we have the 17/25pdr; and suddenly we are forced to acknowledge that this book is taking us past the 1st battle of El Alamien.  At that point one starts to wonder where the Shermans  that should be appearing in greater numbers over the course of the run up to the 2nd battle to the fall of Tunis.  Of course the answer, at least on the Sherman, is that they are coming, albeit later– although that leaves a question on how they will integrate into the British list.  All in all, whilst it doesn’t undo the good background from earlier, it makes the book feel less satisfying as a historical wargame supplement than if it had a tighter focus on its time period and the 17/25 had been left out.  In this, we may have the first conflict between those who value Flames as an accessible but still historically constrained wargame to the first whiffs of the “do what you want” attitude to lists that has been hinted.

The 17/25pdr itself has been de-tuned somewhat.  It was already weaker than its late war APBC firing D-day cousin (let alone the APDS version of even later) but it now drops further in AT rating to 12, although it at least keeps RoF 2 and gains a small buff in range to 36”.  That would be easier to swallow if the German’s 88 wasn’t getting better!  Ultimately, with artillery and airpower being derated and no Shermans present, the 17/25pdr is the only thing the Brits have that will deal with a Tiger.


As I look at my word page count and note its approaching the end of a fifth page of A4, its probably time to wrap things up.

BF needed to accomplish two things with the new books.  The first was provide a book that the deluge of new players that BF is banking one could pick up and create lists with that would be relatively balanced with fewer constraints. The clear presentation and the new Force/Formation/Unit structure almost certainly achieve that, whilst the formation system provides plenty of options on how to field the force – if you want to field a full regiment of Stuarts you can do!

The second task was to re-assure the old hands that they could still do historically meaningful lists with their existing collection.  In this the books perhaps suffer from a bit of over reach.  It starts off well with the historical order of battle sitting alongside the game layout to try and reassure the historical wargamer that this is indeed, all kosher.  If had been pitched as a Gazala – First battle of El Alamein with a narrow focus on 7th Armoured then it would have at least been accepted as a set of historical limitations (of course there is no Sherman!  We haven’t got to it yet); Players would grumble (lets face it, we all do) but at least know that they need to wait till the time line advances.

I’m ever the optimist.  I like the V4 rules, I like what they tried to do with the integration of reality and game structures, and feel that they got this book almost right.  It just suffers from trying to do too much to keep up with an axis book that feels it needed to have a Tiger in.

One thing that should be noted is that BF have announced a set of “command cards” that allow variants of lists (such as DivCav, etc) to be built from the contents of the army book.  This sounds like it goes a long way to fleshing out the book’s options so it will be interesting to see how they are implemented.

That’s the review done.  Next I’ll look at taking my existing 1500pt 3RTR at Gazala list and exporting it to V4 and then we’ll culminate with a scrap against the hun in the desert in the third article.  See you then!

9 thoughts on “Desert Rats – Version 4 Army Book review

  1. Couple of things, v3 Crusader CS’s could always bombard, they just weren’t much use at it. Honeys didn’t have Tally Ho, only EW Cruisers and the Crusader II. Will be interested to see his the extra 2 inch move compensates for the loss of Tally Ho, it is good to see the Christie suspension getting some understanding in Flames, even if the Brits never really made a mechanically reliable version. Sadly I have to say removing no HE is for me a huge historically howler. The primary sources regularly cite the lack of HE as “the” tactical problem facing the Western Desert Force / 8th Army, yes you can shoot a big 40 MM solid shot at infantry, and no doubt the one person you hit with it will be pretty upset…..but it’s not an effective use of limited rounds. Nice to see the 25pdr holds up well, though disappointed that iconic portees have disappeared, as for the anachronistic 17/25pdr, it’s there because of the equally anachronistic Tiger in the German lists, at the end of the day commercialism trumps historical accuracy and I guess we have to accept that nowadays. Be interested to understand why the Pak38 outranged the Grant, both guns appear to have a maximum range of 3000 yards ( and the desert was inevofvtge few places in WW2 that maximum range really mattered), historically it certainly outranged the 2pdr, and the 3.7 gun on the CS’ so no problem with upping it’s range, do other people have different stats for the 75mm on the Grant. Last quick question, Lee talks about shooting the 75mm at one target whilst using the 37mm against a different one, is that now allowable in v4, only T35s could do that in v3 ? Thanks for the article

    1. Thanks for the comment!

      Fair point on the CS bombardment. I should have looked that one up rather than relying on memory – Honeys don’t have access to such a tank so its never come up for me.

      The Grant/Lee has always had multiple weapon allowing it to shoot at different targets. It now has Secondary Weapon which similarly states that “Each weapon may fire at a different target.”

      The change to “no HE” is an odd one. It used to annoy me that “poor HE” was removed from V1 onward but “No HE” always felt like a valid inclusion to reflect the historical reality.


  2. with multiple weapons you still had to shoot at the same platoon (sorry if I didn’t make that clear, it was early !!! 🙂 ) are you now allowed to target different platoons with the 37 and 75 ?

    Might have to open the box marked “unfinished MW Desert” and start painting….

    1. Sorry Richard, you are wrong. “Multiple Weapons” of page 111 of the V3 rulebook states categorically “Some tanks, such as the US M3 medium tank… Vehicles with multiple Main Guns may fire both guns at the same time, either at the same platoon, or different enemy platoons.”

      So, continuing on from previous versions, Grants can target different units with different weapons.

      Hope that helps clarify it.

  3. Just out of curiousity, I thought that motor companies in real life had three infantry platoons. Any indications why only two are allowed? (I haven’t played FoW steadily for several years but am probably getting back into it now because I like Team Yankee and am looking forward to the new rules.)

Comments are closed.