Archive for June, 2015

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There was a time when the United States didn’t believe in aerial warfare. Wars, after all, were for men—not flying machines. When Europe went to war in the summer of 1914, the U.S. military boasted a measly collection of five aircraft, with no training programs or recruitment procedures in place. But that didn’t mean the country lacked skilled pilots. In fact, it was just the opposite.

In The First Eagles, historian Gavin Mortimer profiles the restless, determined American aviators who grew tired of waiting for the their country to establish an aerial military force during World War I. It was these men who enlisted in Britain’s desperate and battered Royal Flying Corps when, in 1917, it opened a recruitment office in New York. After an intensive and deadly year of training that gave recruits a realistic taste of the combat they would face, 247 fresh American RFC pilots were shipped over to Europe, with hundreds more following in the next two months. Twenty-eight of them claimed five or more kills to become feted as “aces,” their involvement lauded as pivotal to the Allied victory. In this book, Mortimer compiles their history through letters, diaries, memoirs, and archives from museums in the United States and Britain—from John Donaldson, who left for France at age twenty and shot down seven Germans before being downed himself, to the Iaccaci brothers, who accounted for twenty-nine German aircraft between them.

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The First Eagles is a really great read – engaging from the start, and does an excellent job of exploring and explaining the roles of the individual pilots in the grand scheme of things.  You get a sense of not just the individuals, but how much of an impact they had on the development of the Royal Air Force, and on the First World War at large.

Some of the camaraderie and friendship displayed between the pilots is a lovely read – and some of them make for some very fun anecdotes.  The coverage given to the training programme is similarly very interesting.  The First Eagles also contains it fair share of pathos, too – hardly surprising given the conflict – but they are genuinely moving.

A great, entertaining book on an understudied part of history.

The Napoleonic War-Head Spike Direction is back, with another review for us; this time the new Naval rules from Osprey Games:

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Fighting Sail is a new wargame from Osprey Games, pitting navies from the era of the Napoleonic and Revolutionary wars against each other in games ranging from one-on-one frigate duels, to squadron level battles with ships-of-the-line blasting away at each other.

I was very keen to try this one out, so much so that rather than waiting to amass a fleet of miniatures I assembled two fleets of paper ships, made with artwork from juniorgeneral.org (I highly recommend doing this if you’re strapped for cash, actually. They turned out quite nicely! MS Paint never looked so good!).

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The gameplay splits broadly between two fairly obvious areas: sailing and shooting. Initially, I thought that sailing – and the various particulars of rolling for move points and variations due to the direction of the wind would take some working out – but in our first battle my opponent (fellow SF bod Joseph Crouch) and I took to it exceedingly quickly, with only a few near misses and accidental collisions. I fully expect to be far more adept at sailing my fleet in future games, though absolute control is unlikely due to the dice-generated sailing points, but being at the mercy of the weather is all part of the joy of this game.

Shooting works in a way that would be familiar to most readers, dicing off your gunnery score versus the target’s hull, with unsaved hits causing damage. Two ships of a similar class lined up side by side will pretty much cancel each other out and the way damage works means you can’t really hope to wear them down or win on points, as crews have a decent chance of repairing damage as fast you can deal it one-on-one.  The trick is to position your fleet so several ships fire on one target, or catch an enemy ship in their vulnerable prow or stern (the ‘raking’ shot). In this way one has a decent chance of dealing a knockout blow in one turn, so being a good sailor is vital to victory.

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This game comes damn close to hitting the perfect balance between realism and playability. Providing an experience that is, generally, more ‘zoomed out’ from the specifics (Crouch hankered after rules for chain shot for example) but has an overall feel which seems about right for the period, and never gets bogged down.  Though there were a couple of minor niggles within our game specifically (ships seemed to be sunk a little too easily in the right circumstances, especially by the British with their mad gunnery skills, and boarding actions seemed impossible to achieve, with the target ship seemingly able to swing out of the way almost every time) and I suspect these may be less of an issue for a more experienced player.

The battle we played to test this out was your classic ‘Britain vs France’ but there are fleet lists in the rule book for Spain, Russia, The Netherlands, Sweden, and most intriguing to me, The United States and Barbary Pirates, between whom I am already planning an encounter.

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In the space of an afternoon I am hooked on this, and strongly recommend Fighting Sail to those with an interest, passing or obsessive, in the period, or naval combat, or anyone who’s ever seen Master & Commander or Hornblower.

Last of the Lancasters

Posted: June 3, 2015 in Aerial, World War II

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This new collection of pilot and civilian reminiscences endeavours to commemorate the spirit of the almighty Lancaster bomber, with each chapter dedicated to a unique individual – or group of individuals – who took part in its history in some capacity. Be they pilot, civilian, or journalist, each played their own part and their accounts offer a host of fascinating insights.

Episodes featured include the battle for Munich and the Nuremburg and Berlin Raids. Stories of PoWs downed in their Lancasters and captured in enemy territory also feature, communicating a real sense of peril experienced behind enemy lines.

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Last of the Lancasters is a pleasure to read, and a large part of this is due to how well-paced it is.  The anecdotes and experiences are short, to the point, and contain a minimum of the self-indulgent waffle that regularly plagues books of this type.  As a result, everything feels easy to digest, and so you actually feel that you’re learning from Last of the Lancasters without even trying – there’s no wodges of statistics and bumpf here!

It’s nice that everyone who offers up their story feels like an individual.  It’s not as though you’re getting the same engineering story from fifteen different engineers!  Every story contributes something unique, and this all adds to making Last of the Lancasters a joy to read.

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Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in WWII aviation.

105800 It’s hard to believe that it’s nearly two years now since Henry Hyde’s The Wargaming Compendium was unleashed upon wargamers the world over.  Now, it’s back, significantly cheaper, and significantly lighter…yet still bursting with all – if not more – of the content that made its original release so awesome.

There are many great things about The Wargaming Compendium that make it an essential purchase, but one of the things to strike me upon reading it cover to cover for the first time is how useful it is no matter if this is the first thing you’ve ever read on wargaming, or if you’re an old hand who’s devoted his spare bedroom over to a 32mm recreation of The Battle of Stamford Bridge.

Within are tips and guides for choosing which era you want to fight in, how to prep and paint figures, how to build and lay-out terrain…pretty much everything you could need. Complete games/rulesets are supplied, as well as a pretty comprehensive directory of conventions, websites, magazines and publishers.  All periods of history are covered, from Ancients to Ultra-Modern, with a fair amount of discussion also given over to fantasy and sci-fi games. I cannot recommend this book enough.

No matter what your experience level, or what aspect of wargaming you are interested in, there is plenty in here to make it worth your while.  And now it’s lighter, as well. Bonus.

Buy it with your hands.  Again.