Tuesday, 20 July 2021

8th Army: Operation Crusader, The Winter Battles for Tobruk 1941, Game Designers’ Workshop on Vassal

You have to be of a certain age to remember first encountering a new game that was published in 1984, but I have an original copy of this game in hard copy format and both Steve and I were captivated by the novel blind play that the game offers by using two copies of the same map, one for each player, when we first had a go playing Operation Crusader from GDW back last century!

The Empire Map set up with the British armoured brigades out on the left flank and Indian, South African and New Zealand infantry brigades linking them to coast in front of Bardia on the Egypt-Libya border. The Tobruk garrison is waiting to be relieved ready to launch a breakout to link up and behind the line of German crosses lurks Rommel and his Italo-German Afrika Korps.

Needless to say, when I saw there was a Vassal module for the game I was really keen to see how well it translates to the age of computer moderation, ideally suited for facilitating blind play; and so about six weeks ago Steve and I brought our computers together in the same room as lockdown restrictions started to ease and set about seeing if it was as good as remembered.

The 'nerve centre' of the game, seen here at the conclusion of the second turn, with a record of time gone, supply consumption, reinforcements, replacements and rebuilt units, air support availability and combat resolution, when units in a battle hex on the map are set up on the combat display, the only time enemy units are visible to the opposing player. Note the supply situation at the start of the offensive with the Empire forces seen here with 17 points in reserve and a replenishment point every day for the first eight days of the offensive, reducing to one every other day and compare that to the Axis tracker.

The premise behind the game Operation Crusader is to recreate the eighteen day battle that started on November 19th 1941 when in the real attack, that came after months of build up by 8th Army as Rommel was focused on the problem of removing the garrison of Tobruk sat on his lines of communication (LOC), the British 4th, 7th and 22nd Armoured brigades supported by two Army Tank Brigades in support of Empire Infantry began the offensive, catching the 'Desert Fox' unprepared and definitely unconvinced that such an offensive was happening.

The game map at turn 2 with arrows indicating my (Empire) plan of attack aiming to knock out German airfields at Sidi Rezegh and Sidi Azeiz, thus reducing Axis air support, whilst 'crumbling attacks' by Empire Infantry and Army Tank Brigades push the enemy back along the coast, cutting off any defenders in Bardia (Note that the display shows my units faded out letting me know that they are hidden to Steve. When at full resolution they are visible to both players.)

Thus the victory conditions for the game are relatively straight forward in that both commanders are comparing their result with that achieved by their historical predecessors, with the Empire commander looking to have a link with a held Tobruk perimeter by Turn 18,  and for a decisive victory, six Axis units destroyed, twice the combat strength in Empire armoured units to Axis and three times the strength of Empire infantry to Axis, or for a tactical victory, the historical outcome, Tobruk relieved but a failure to achieve the other conditions, with any other result leading to a drawn game.

The 'actual situation' map for turn 2 with all forces 'uncloaked' and revealing the Axis defenders, with a thin screen of Italian infantry (light grey) surrounding Tobruk, Panzers opposing my armoured brigades in front of Sidi Rezegh, and no Axis garrison in Bardia and thin line of Italians on the coast in retreat before my South African (blue) and New Zealand (dark brown) infantry brigades. Note Steve's placement of Axis supply units across his line within five hexes of his forward units, allowing him to launch counter assaults as required.

Our game pretty much followed the historical offensive and both Steve and I revelled in the hidden display that for us really captured the vast nature of war in the Western Desert in WWII with units seemingly appearing out of 'the blue' and just as quickly disappearing back into it.

A very straight forward terrain effects table, easily memorised for fast game play

The nature of the fighting is beautifully captured with supply units (the box truck on wheels counter) within five hexes needed to support a full out assault in any one hex, where defenders can either retreat to lessen combat hits but where assaulters take all hits recieved and probing attacks that don't require supply but allow a hex to be investigated by the probing unit and for the both sides units to withdraw if it takes casualties, thus reducing them by one level,  but to press the probe into a reconnaissance in force should the defender prove to be weak and fail to cause any casualties with defensive fire.

As supply is used up the little truck counters are first revealed to the enemy player so that he can confirm it is range of where the assault is taking place, then removed and put in the 'Supply Units' box on the game tracker; available to come back on to the map as a supply point from the pool is spent, thus allowing it to drive up a road track or open desert from its friendly map edge using its five movement point allowance to get it to where it needs to be to support future assaults.

A likewise straight forward Combat Results Table, with ratio between attacker and defender strength points establishing the basic column to be modified by aspects such as terrain or air support, but with infantry generally halving their attack factor vs armour unless anti-tank capable. Note the effects are generous with even 1:1 assaults only missing on a 1 allowing infantry to prepare the crumbling attacks favoured by Monty.

The Turn Record Track shows on which days new supply points are received and the appropriate player records his total reserve supply accordingly, from which he replenishes his used truck counters.

A very simple but clever system that restricts the players freedom to throw in assaults here, there and everywhere without a thought for the days ahead in a very long eighteen day offensive operation.

Supporting operations on the ground are the respective air forces which can be prepositioned over a hex to offer offensive or defensive air support, effectively shifting the combat result column left or right, with opposing air units generally cancelling each other out and the opportunity for ground forces to use the anti-aircraft defences to drive off supporting enemy air, before the combat resolution.

The ‘Honey’ equipped 4th Armoured Brigade composed of the 8th Hussars, 5th Royal Tanks Regt. and 3rd Royal Tank Regiment, with an anti-tank capable red dot, top left and factors along the bottom (attack-defence-movement) 

Pressing forward with my armoured brigades at the start of the offensive I managed to make rapid progress advancing on Sidi Rezgh, with Steve throwing in occasional counter attacks but, as he later recounted, making the mistake of not hitting back harder with more powerful groups and thus burning valuable supply and losing units for little tangible gain 

Turn 4 - 22nd November 1941 and 4th and 22nd Armoured brigades have punched their way into Axis lines and are sitting astride the airfield at Sidi Rezegh among wrecked Luftwaffe and Italian aircraft and only four hexes (sixteen miles) from Tobruk, but the armoured brigades need to halt having consumed a lot of supply in their offensive and with the cruiser tanks of 2nd Hussars, 22nd Armoured brigade written off in the fighting (British tank unit bottom left forming my 'dead stack') supported by the 4th Indian Infantry Division (white counters) to their right.

However my early armoured offensive burned up a lot of Empire supply points and the loss of the 7th Hussars cruiser tanks and most of the Panzers had still not been encountered in battle leaving me rather concerned that Steve was preparing a counter attack to drive me back to my start line.

The Panzer Regiments 8th and 5th in two battalion groups forming the punch in the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions of Afrika Korps (Note the attack and defence factors compared to the British 4th Armoured Brigade above)

As I feared, Steve had been conserving his supply and armour after his infantry and antitank gun screen had absorbed the brunt of my armoured assault by conducting a pincer offensive to cut off the head of my attack at Sidi Rezegh setting up the rather tragic and historical battle by Brigadier General Jock Campbell and his 7th Support Group on the airfield in the historical battle.

Knocked out tanks litter the airfield at Sidi Rezegh in the Crusader battles of 1941

Thus by turn seven, November 25th the situation had changed on the armoured sector of the battlefield as the Panzers rolled on to Sidi Rezegh airfield and pushed back Empire armour and infantry as they surrounded the defenders and crushed the last remaining units of honey tanks bravely resisting to the last.

Turn 7 - 25th November and the British armoured assault to Sidi Rezegh has been halted and cut off with the battered 5th Royal Tank Regt. soon to join their comrades, written off the Empire order of battle as I prepare to shift the weight of the Empire offensive to the coast and send in the infantry.

The desert war is all about supply and the game really captures the importance of it to enable assaults to take place, the most effective way of taking ground. My armoured thrust had left me needing to hold the ground taken, with my air force put on to patrolling defensively over forward ground units as I spent the next few days rearranging my line and husbanding supply ready to initiate the infantry battle to come.

Veterans from the Battle of Crete in May 1941, the three brigades (4th 5th and 6th New Zealand Infantry) and the 28th Maori battalion that composed my 2nd New Zealand assault division. Empire infantry have powerful attack and, importantly for holding ground, defensive factors, and the New Zealanders are the best, great for making probing attacks as well as offensives with army tank Matildas and Valentines in support.

However the respite of the next few days where both sides drew breath was not a quiet period at all as I was quite keen to launch probing attacks along the front line to keep a clear picture of Axis units opposing my forward line and to expose areas vacated by retreating Italian infantry near the coast and the possibility of inflicting casualties that would eat in to the much limited Axis replacement pool, referred to as 'dominating the ground' in British training manuals.

Turn 11 - November 29th and the Axis have destroyed any remaining resistance around Sidi Rezegh as the Empire rebuild their supply base but conduct aggressive combat patrols on the right front with the New Zealand and South African infantry supported by army tank brigades and armoured care regiments cutting of Bardia and driving along the metalled coast road as they turn the Axis flank as I prepare to drive on to Gambut airfield which would allow a possible breakout offensive by the Tobruk garrison.

The next big push by the Empire forces would likely decide the game as, with the need for a breakthrough using the last remains of Empire supply and a small reserve to press a link up with Tobruk, faced by Steve's clever but stingy use of Axis supply to allow any required last ditch counterattacks to break any such link up, I set myself the goal of reaching Gambut airfield in force by turn fourteen, December 2nd and then to reassess my chances from there.

Luftwaffe air support with the deadly Stukas and their +2 column combat shift only countered by Empire antiaircraft fire hitting on 4+ which really made a difference in the later combats.

Well as the saying goes 'time spent on reconnaissance is not wasted time' and as the game reached its closing stages on turn eleven, November 29th, my South African and New Zealand Infantry had elbowed their way forward past Bardia and set up a jumping off point to press on to Gambut; through a series of probing attacks that revealed a hotchpotch of Italian and Germain infantry and reconnaissance battalions, thinly spread and trying desperately to hold key nodes to block rapid approach to either the airfield or Tobruk, along the main coast road.

Boston medium bombers of 12th and 21st South African squadrons part of
the Empire air support, that defended gains and supported attacks.

With my supply restored, my remaining armour replenished and my infantry set up on their jump off points before Bardia and Sidi Azeiz airfield the big push kicked off with mixed results with the New Zealanders encountering stiff resistance and dogged attacks from the Luftwaffe that kept them pinned back around Sidi Azeiz but the South African 1st and 2nd Infantry Divisions able to turn the Axis flank through the rough terrain between the coast and the coast road with armoured car patrols pushing the line up to just north of Gambut airfield.

Turn 14 - December 2nd and the Empire high water mark has been reached with a stolid Axis defence of the coast road preventing the New Zealand and South African Infantry closing on Gambut Airfield and no realistic chance of linking up with Tobruk and holding a link up until Turn 18, December 6th. 

However just to get to that position had burnt up the last offensive reserve of Empire supply leaving just a small amount to cover emergency counter-attacks and with the Axis very unlikely to be able to break the Tobruk perimeter we called our game a draw but effectively a win for Steve as he had out generalled Rommel who faced with an Empire tactical victory withdrew from Tobruk, setting up his successful offensive in May 1942 at Gazala.

This game is a hidden gem in the catalogue of Desert Campaign games, and the unique double-blind map moving only made easier with computer moderation is amazing at capturing the uncertainty that the real life generals had to contend with whilst gazing at their situation maps trying to assess their chances by pressing forward in any particular area.

Turn 14 - December 2nd and with the cloaking removed, the real situation is revealed at the end of the game with a solid line of Axis resistance blocking any further Empire advance along the coast road, backed up by both Panzer Divisions ready to deal with any break through and plenty of Axis supply to allow counterattacks.  The South African armoured car patrols were pushed back from Gambut in the last Axis move. Note the stacks of destroyed Empire (extreme bottom left) and destroyed Axis units (top right, in the sea).

The final map above revealed the truth of the situation and confirmed my decision to concede early with a solid Axis blocking line between Tobruk and Bardia with the likelihood of significant losses in Empire infantry had I persisted in pressing the offensive to the point of no supply in reserve.

The empty areas marked by each others national symbol shows the bluffing ability the game offers with areas we both suspected to be vacant but never checked out thoroughly, based on the fact that surrounded areas cut off from supply could not conduct assaults, only probes, and time spent mopping up distracted from the offensive operations that had moved past such areas.

The game chart display at the close of our game with both sides carrying multiple units in their 'Remnants Boxes' , top and bottom right and with Steve sitting on six supply points (Supply and Replacement Track) to just two Empire with just another two to come (two supply markers on the Empire Turn Record Track).

In addition the Empire left flank is hanging out 'in the blue' based on the fact that I was content for the Axis to throw units out there, away from where I wanted to attack, and supply them if he wished, but Steve was too canny for that, and as can be seen both forces contracted their line closer to the sea as units were written off the order of battle and remaining forces had to focus on control of key roads and tracks.

The only downside with this game is that the Vassal module is an old one and given the relatively low rating (6.8) given to the game on Boardgame Geek (BGG) probably explains why it hasn't been updated to remove a few glitches on units wandering to different areas of the map occasionally. Not a huge problem and it didn't affect our play or enjoyment.

The other aspect, more to do with our play rostering, is that leaving the game each week to play the next, often meant that the picture of the enemy front line garnered from previous play had dimmed, requiring further probing to re-establish it, but again seemed to add to the 'fog of war' and further embellish the situation.

We still rate Rommel in the Desert as our favourite Desert Campaign Game, but the unique hidden movement in 8th Army puts the game up there with it as a 'Very Happy to Play' game, and more than repaid our six week investment to play it, so don't always follow what the folks on BGG think, this is a much better game than the rating portrays and it is well worth checking out.

Next up; Let's Build a Sloop, a post on exactly how to construct the flush-deck, ship-rigged sloop from an excess of Warlord 1:700th Brig models and with a video tutorial to help illustrate the process


  1. Great game! I have a hard copy and intend to use it a the basis for a miniatures campaign, probably Megablitz......

    1. Hi Neil,
      Yes indeed and I had thought this would make a really interesting campaign set up for arranging tabletop games with Megablitz or even Sam Mustafa’s ‘Rommel’



  2. There's some others in the GDW "Double Blind" series on Market Garden and Normandy but I think Crusader is the best of the series.

  3. Yes I have the Market Garden game and we've played it, but I agree that the system seems made for capturing the vast openness of warfare in the desert and we certainly preferred Crusader to Market Garden, and this Vassal game confirmed our original thoughts.