Second Battle of Tembien

This Battle Report by James Morris is kindly reproduced here from his thread on the Lead Adventure Forum. Wonderful stuff, lovely pictures and as always an excellent report – great work.

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Thursday last week saw my second game of Chain of Command: Abyssinia at the Lenton Gamers in Nottingham.  I was keen to try out the tribal army list (Ethiopian chitet) and the Italian Blackshirts, which led me to the events of February 27th, 1936, in the Second Battle of Tembien…

 

‘At around 0800 hours the wail of horns, the roll of the negarit, the war drum, filled the air, when suddenly and unexpectedly, thousands of Ethiopians armed with rifles, the regulars in khaki, the irregulars in white shammas,  burst out of the dense woods covering the slopes of Debra Ansa and flung themselves at the Italians. 

“From that moment until four in the afternoon, wave after wave of Ethiopians made desperate attempts to break the line of the Alpini and Blackshirts,” wrote Tomaselli.  “The first to fall on our troops were the irregulars, who were sent forward under cover of the fire of the irregulars. Armed with cudgels and scimitars, they hurled themselves with mad frenzy on our machine guns.  At times, the Italian line wavered dramatically, but the Ethiopians were driven back by bayonet charges.’

 

This passage from Angelo del Boca’s book ‘The Ethiopian War 1935-41’ gave me a rough scenario (the Ethiopians would emerge downhill through woods to attempt to rush the Italians and break through their line).  I decided to use ‘The Probe’ scenario from the CoC rulebook, as the Ethiopians were simply trying to break through the Italian line, though I allowed 2d6 rather than 1d6 support to allow the Italians to use at least one machine gun.  Tanks, entrenchments and the like were not allowed.  The patrol phase was fairly indifferent, so we both ended up with jump-off points facing each other from the woods and rocks at either side of the battlefield.

 


Start of the game: Italians on the left, Ethiopians emerging from the woods on the right.  You can see that three Italian units had already managed to deploy to the Ethiopians’ one.

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Ethiopian jump off point: a mule and umbrella bearer.  The lion is just for fun, and moral support, of course.

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For the Ethiopians, I used the Ethiopian Chitet force composition, which is a bit of a shocker if you are used to a 1944 British army platoon!  You get one senior leader, one junior leader, and 50 warriors (which you can split up into up to 5 warbands).  To add to the fun, these guys come armed only with melee weapons, so you need to spend support choices to give them rifles!  I rolled ten points of support, which I spent on: arming 50 figures with tribal rifles (-1 to hit, but at least they can shoot something); adding 5 figures to a unit; and getting a war drum and flag.

I decided the Ethiopians should be regular, and have 5 command dice (there are options to make them worse than this on both counts but I felt they were going to be up against it anyway without adding further disadvantages).  The Ethiopians have over a page of special rules for tribal troops; even though I’d read these in advance, they took some getting used to, and I think I would need to play them a few more times.  In brief, the rules make tribal warriors highly variable in performance, and there is an overarching ‘motivation tracker’ which helps to simulate the highs and lows of being in a tribe with one big leader!  More on that later.


Ethiopian warriors led by a junior leader.

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Adam took command of the Blackshirts, though we had to pad out the ranks with a few Bersaglieri figures to make up the numbers for the 1930s style platoon (or ‘manipula’ in the case of the Blackshirts).  They had a senior leader and three squadra of 11 men each, with junior leaders and a Breda LMG in each.  I was pleased to see that the Italian LMG was rated as an automatic rifle (3 fire dice rather than 6), which I feel reflects the performance of these inefficient weapons quite well.  Adam’s force was rated as Green, with 5 command dice, which gave him a +2 on support, so seven points in total, which he spent on a 65/17 infantry gun and a MMG team.


The 65/17 gun plus supporting infantry.

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The game opened with a very rapid Italian deployment; by about Phase 3 every Blackshirt was in position, with his rifle trained on the woods and an overwatch marker on every team.  By contrast, the Ethiopians were slow to start.  My chum Rage shared the Ethiopian command with me, and he suggested going for an all-out right hook to try to break though.  I took a couple of units to the left to try to soak up some of the fire while Rage’s boys charged in.  At least, that was the plan…


Blackshirts deploy to the rocks to cover the right flank of the battlefield.

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By phase 3 or so, every Italian unit has an overwatch marker (left) and is ready to fire on the Ethiopians (right).

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Wait till you see the whites of their eyes!

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It took quite a few phases for the Ethiopians to get anywhere near like in position.  Rage advanced a unit on the right which took cover in a pile of rocks and opened fire on the Italians, killing a whole one figure (this was the only Italian lost to shooting in the entire game).  Despite being in hard cover, the losses on this unit racked up; when the junior leader was wounded, Ethiopian morale began to slide down the scale.


The foremost Ethiopian unit hides out amongst the rocks, attracting a lot of Italian fire.

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Finally, we had managed to deploy all five of our units to the table, and they were as far forward as possible.  This took some time, as the dice seemed  against us, and the force composition is carefully designed to make the Ethiopians less flexible than more organised troops (as in our previous game with the Mahel Safari).  For example, as we had no teams, single command dice rolls of 1 couldn’t be used, unless combined with another die.  With the warbands (sections) not having junior leaders, many rolls of 3 were wasted.  I think this models the lack of training quite well, even if it is frustrating while you are playing! Added to that, we managed to roll a lot of single sixes!


A fairly typical Ethiopian command dice roll: the single 6 is wasted, only one of the two fours can be used for the single senior leader, there are no teams so the 1 is also wasted, but the 3 can at least be used by the junior leader to get some warriors into action.

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Slowly, the Ethiopians creep forward…

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Anyway, Rage suggested that we burn our only Chain of Command die to get an extra two command dice at the start of our phase (this extra rule appears in CoC Great War as well).   With seven dice, could we get the scores we needed?  Well, yes, we could, and every unit moved for a change.  Our rearmost unit on the right, which was destined to be the secret weapon which would break through and win the game, turned out to be rather reluctant and fluffed their movement dice several times in succession.


Warriors massing, ready for the critical rush on the Italian lines.

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As we broke cover, all hell broke loose.  I had sent two Ethiopian units over the hill on the left flank, where they were promptly all but destroyed by cannon and MG fire.  We discovered that one nasty aspect of the tribal rules is that a unit can be pinned whenever it takes casualties from shooting (a random dice roll is taken with a number of modifiers).  A couple of units fell foul of this during the game, and they were unable to recover from it, as incredibly the whole game took place in a single turn – we never rolled a double 6 for command dice, and no-one ended the turn. (Towards the end of the game, my helpful chum Mark found some extra rules about tribal leaders that might have helped me recover from the pinning, but I had missed it on the first read-through.)


Break cover and charge!

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Heavy casualties in the centre, but warriors are swinging right (top of picture) to try to break through.

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Lion of Judah vs machine gun…

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The 65/17 gun joins in…

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On the Ethiopian right flank, the junior leader’s warriors are pinned and then broken by heavy fire.

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On the right flank – where the schwerpunkt was supposed to be – one unit got pinned, another was destroyed, and the third was still faffing around with very slow random movement.  The losses were causing Ethiopian morale to plummet, with the expected reduction in command dice.  My reluctant unit finally surged forwards with a view to breaking out on the right flank, but the Blackshirts facing them mounted a last-ditch charge, which wiped out the entire unit.  Game over and victory to the Italians!


Last ditch – a single unit of warriors is charged and dispersed by the Italians.

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Once again, the CoC Abyssinia lists had given us an exciting game with two very different forces.  It turned into a bit of a firing line once the main attack started, but the Ethiopians always had a chance of winning, even if it became slimmer and slimmer as the game went on.  The tribal rules work, but they definitely add an extra layer of complexity; next time I will make sure I give them a few more reads before the game.  I also think I missed some morale rules that could have helped my Ethiopians to hang on a bit longer than they did in this game!

In the end, we got a very historical result, and a good game.  These lists have definitely got me dusting off these 1930s figures, and deservedly so.

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