Thursday, August 22, 2019

Worst Case Scenario #19: SCW Rearguard during 'la Retirada' ('The Retreat') - Northern Spain, February 1939

This past spring we spent a few wonderful weeks vacationing in the south of France in the Roussillon area.  

This region is ruggedly beautiful and steeped in history extending back to the ancient period. Roman ruins, medieval castles, an excellent privately run Napoleonic museum, you name it - it's all there to take in and enjoy. In addition to all this, I managed to find the gravesite and pay my respects to one of my favourite authors, Patrick O'Brian (creator of the superb Aubrey-Maturin series of novels). He rests with his wife Mary outside the beautiful seaside village of Collioure, where they lived in their later life.

One of the other border towns we stayed in was Cerbere, which is situated along the Mediterranean, right alongside the Spanish frontier. Interestingly enough, Cerbere was one of the major crossing points for Spanish refugees who fled from Franco's final offensive in early 1939. 

A bit of background. The Spanish call this period 'la Retirada', The Retreat. At the time it was one of the largest refugee crisis in Europe, with almost a half million people fleeing into France during January and February, 1939. It quickly became a humanitarian crisis as the harsh weather along with the poor conditions of the refugee camps caused many to die of undernourishment, disease and exposure.

Some of the refugees, spurred by the terrible camp conditions, accepted deportation back to Spain. Unfortunately, they suffered oppression, discrimination and often execution by Franco's vitriolic fascists. Others were lucky enough to be accepted as exiles in the Americas and other parts of the world, but many chose to remain in France. Those who stayed had to endure a new war against fascism, some tragically being transferred to German concentration camps, while others fought with French Resistance cells and the Free French Army under de Gaulle. 

Over time, the Spanish refugees that remained in France were assimilated into local Occitanie communities, adding to the rich and diverse culture found in that region today.

The site commemorating 'la Retirada'  at the border crossing between France and Spain near Cerbere .

Me at the la Retirada memorial.


This visit (and subsequent research) prompted me to put together a small 'Chain of Command: Espana' scenario for the guys. 

The Scenario

The scenario is a simple affair,  depicting a cobbled together Republican rearguard attempting to buy precious time for their refugees to make it to the frontier unmolested. 

Peter commanded the Republicans, which were composed of a platoon-strength smattering of anarchists and militia, salted with a few regulars and assault guards from the shattered Republican army. Not surprisingly, they have no heavy equipment, with only a couple light machine guns to bolster their firepower. Nonetheless, one huge benefit they do have is that they are all fanatical volunteers, making them damnably hard to break. 

Stacy and Jeremy ran the Spanish Nationalists. This force is mostly comprised of ardent-though-brittle Falagists, stiffened with a squad of Morroccan Regulares and a some Carlists. Perhaps more importantly, they have access to an armoured car along with artillery support from their navy posted just off-shore. Yes, an overwhelming force, but it needs to be brought to bear in a very short period of time.

This leads us to the victory conditions: The Republicans have to hold back the Nationalists for six turns, by which time they have purchased enough breathing space for the retreating refugee columns to reach the frontier. 

In order to mimic the steep terrain of the region, I propped up the play surface on a row of stacked books. This is a nod to Simon over at BigRedBat who used this to great effect for his Battle of Mancetter, 61 CE game at Salute this past spring. Thanks for the inspiration, Simon for this simple but effective hobby hack.

The Planning

The Nationalist players, knowing that they had a distinct superiority in firepower, planned to set up several firing positions hoping to simply destroy the Republicans under sheer weight of firepower. 

Peter in turn, felt it would be unwise to risk any close assaults over open ground and instead decided to keep his forces' heads down, exploit any Nationalist mistakes and play for time.

Looking left down the hillside from the Republican held crest.
...and looking down from the right.

The scenario essentially played-out along these lines. The Nationalists kept up a constant tempo of fire, whittling down the Republicans every turn, whereas the Republicans kept close to their cover and returned fire when they could. It was all very attritional for both sides, with many fingernails being chewed as the casualties mounted and the clock worked its way to the game's conclusion. 

Above, units from the Nationalist left wing attempt to move forward into assault range. They are ultimately pinned down from accurate Republican rifle and LMG fire.

Republicans taking shelter in a shellhole while trying to hold their right flank.
The fearsome Moroccan Regulares advancing under fire to establish future assault position.
Carlists move alongside the Moroccans trying to try to press the Republicans.

A fascist armoured car slowly makes its way up the treacherous switch-back road to add its fire upon the Republican positions.

The Nationalist HQ finally got their field phone set up and, after a few turns, started to bring down artillery fire from their naval assets positioned off shore.

The Nationalist navy guns find their range and begin to pound the Republican positions - ouch!

A remnant of a shattered Republican squad taking shelter in a stream bed.
In the end the Republicans managed to weather the Nationalist firepower and hold on until nightfall, forcing the Nationalists to call off their attack for the day. This allowed the refugees a few more hours to seek safety at the French frontier. A pyrrhic Republican victory, for sure, but somehow fitting for the period.

And here is Earnest and George, giving a cameo appearance for the close of the scenario (Thanks Phil!)

Next up: A few of the projects I've been (slowly) working on over this summer.