Wednesday, September 24, 2014

20mm WWII Canadian Infantry from AB Miniatures - The Battle for Ortona, 1943 (Part I)

About a year ago I was rummaging around my storage shed and came across a collection of 20mm WWII figures that I had originally painted-up for use with Arty Conliffe's Crossfire (a very fine and innovative set of rules btw). This group of figures primarily composed of old, but quite good SHQ, Britannia and FAA models. This discovery began me thinking of how I could make use of these figures for future gaming. I decided that I could conscript my 15mm Flames of War collection (a set of rules I'm not especially fond of) for use with Crossfire and then I could use these venerable 20mm figures for skirmish gaming (Chain of CommandBolt Action, etc). As I sorted through the lot I discovered that  I had scads of German Fallshirmjaegers (from a previous Crete scenario), but I needed some more Commonwealth figures to serve as opponents. 

So, I began snooping around the web and came across Anthony Barton's (of AB Miniatures) superb 20mm WWII range. So credit card was duly unsheathed and an order placed. Nonetheless, as these things frequently go, by the time the figures arrived I had abstractedly wandered off to another project (I know, how typical) so the castings were studiously unpacked, briefly admired and then stored away awaiting further inspiration.

Canadian armour moving through Ortona by Charles Comfort
The spark came a few weeks ago when I began reading about the 1943 battle of Ortona which occurred during the Italian campaign. In the larger scheme of things this battle was largely a sideshow, dwarfed by the campaigns in the Eastern Front and overshadowed by the impending landings in Normandy, but to many in Canada Ortona is regarded as our own 'little Stalingrad' due to its brutal and unrelenting house-to-house combat.

'Reinforcements Moving up in the Ortona Salient' by Lawren Philips Harris
As a brief background, Ortona is a port town situated on the Adriatic coast of Italy, relatively close to Rome along a east-west axis. In 1943, with the Allies lines of supply stretched to the extreme, Ortona was regarded as strategically important as it possessed one of the few ports which could accommodate deep-draught shipping. 

For this reason Montgomery wanted it taken and so General Christopher Vokes, commander of the Canadian 1st Infantry Division, ordered his men to batter their way into the town through a series costly frontal assaults along its approaches. Vokes wasn't necessarily a bad commander, but he really wasn't very good either. Monty regarded him as 'a plain cook' and I think that assessment is fairly accurate. So instead of bypassing the town and threatening to pocket the Fallshirmjaegers garrisoning it, Vokes decided to take Ortona by direct assault. 

Map of Ortona showing the path of the Canadian assaults.
The Germans had positioned themselves very well, establishing interlinking fields of fire for effective ambushes, and had littered the advance with mines and boobytraps. The Canadians found that attacking over the rubble-heaped streets while under enemy fire was extremely gruelling and so the casualty toll rose.  The Canadians realized that they had to develop other means in order to grind ahead or the attack would stall completely. One notable trick they came up with was the tactic of 'mouse-holing' (also used in the fighting at Stalingrad). This involved the Canadians blowing a hole through the adjoining walls between upper floors and then systematically working their way down. While this tactic was effective in keeping the men out of the fire-swept streets, the process was fraught with danger as the advance from room-to-room often involved ferocious close-quarters combat.

Over eight days, from December 20th to the 28th, the Canadians of the 2nd Brigade forced the German paratroopers out of the town, but at a cost of nearly 2400 in dead and wounded. The Moro River campaign (of which Ortona was a part) inflicted almost a quarter of all casualties suffered by the Canadians during the entire Italian campaign. After reading the accounts of the campaign one can appreciate why the term 'D-Day Dodgers' deeply rankled with the men fighting up the Italian peninsula.

I painted these figures to represent men from the Loyal Edmonton Regiment and the Saskatoon Light Infantry which were two of the four infantry battalions which were committed to the battle (the other two units were the Seaforth Highlanders and the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry). 

I was struck by the photos of the incredible amount of pale/white rubble in Ortona so I tried to replicate the same in my groundwork, with lots of shattered masonry, dust and debris scattered about.

I've pretty much completed a full platoon, with various supports, but I thought I'd show them over two or three blog posts so the sculpts can stand on their own and not be lost within a mass of figures. 

These castings were a real pleasure to work on and I hope you enjoyed looking them over. 

Next: To mix things up, some Post Apocalyptic Raiders!