"If everybody is thinking alike, then somebody isn't thinking."
Lion of the Desert is an epic film about the conquest of Libya by the Italian fascist regime under Mussolini in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Production of the movie was funded with oil money from the Libyan government of Gaddafi and the lavishly expensive battle scenes are magnificent. Lion of the Desert included strong performances by Anthony Quinn as the Senussi leader Omar Mukhtar and Oliver Reed as General Graziani. This brief trailer is exciting but it does not do the movie justice. The message of the film is not subtle and historical accuracy is lacking in many scenes but Lion of the Desert is great entertainment.
When the movie appeared on TCM last month I immediately wanted to learn more about the conflict and create a scenario for Memoir ‘44. After ordering the DVD I began researching the 1931 battle at Kufra. Most of the resources on the internet seemed to be in the Italian language but I was able to piece together enough information for a scenario.
I also ordered this expensive book about the campaign entitled The Attack on Kufra written by Kuno Gross and Roberto Chiarvetto. The vintage photographs are superb and provide deeper insight into the events surrounding the attack on Kufra. The first thing I discovered in my research became a major disappointment… the powerful battle scene depicted in the film did not reflect the historical narrative. The primary struggle took place near a line of oasis villages 20 kilometers north of Kufra and most of the Italian troops involved were mounted on camels! Instead of the massive force shown in the movie the Italian column represented just one wing of Graziani’s advance and numbered around 1000 men with two small howitzers. The assault by the tanks and most of the other action was a fractured retelling of history; even the devastating attacks by the Italian biplanes were badly out of proper sequence within the context of the battle.
A little research on BGG led me to an interesting little game called Cufra: Defiance in the Desert. Published by Khyber Pass Games in 2001 and designed by Dennis L. Bishop, this wargame depicts the skirmish north of Kufra with a reasonable level of historical accuracy. The game has captured my attention so I plan to create a comprehensive review for BGG in a week or two. There was no reason to duplicate this effort and I wanted to offer the players all of the action shown in the movie. I’ve decided to create a scenario based on the film, not on the actual pattern of events. This will give the Italian player those tanks and a General Graziani command figure (he actually arrived at Kufra after most of the action had ended) with all of the authentic hardware Gaddafi paid for in 1981. Since the play experience must be balanced I’ve added a few entertaining options for the Senussi player, too.
The 3000 troops fighting under the flag of Mussolini included a relatively small number of Italian soldiers supported by Libyan and Eritrean battalions. The loyalty of the Libyan tribes was uncertain so these allies were issued rifles of a caliber incompatible with the weapons used by the Senussi insurgents. The formation shown in this image would represent about 300 Italian or allied soldiers mounted on camels. Mounted units can expend two movement points and fire or expend three movement points without firing. Since these Italian formations had machine guns attached they roll a 4-3-2 pattern on the battle dice.
Formations assembled by the local tribes are represented by figures mounted on camels. Men from the region were defending the Hawari oasis area and Kufra in loosely organized units. Armed mostly with modern rifles, they roll a 3-2-1 pattern on the battle dice. To reflect the informal nature of the Senussi/Bedouin/Arab leadership structure these local forces operate under slightly different command rules than the Senussi cavalry.
Senussi cavalry are mounted on horses and represent tribal warriors dislocated by a previous Italian offensive who took refuge at Kufra. The special leadership rules allow the Senussi leadership cadre to “order” one Senussi formation each turn, but this leadership cadre has no effect on the local tribes… this was my attempt to recreate the independent nature of these groups who fought under their own leaders with no formal military organization.
The Senussi leadership cadre (with flag) is an important element of the Libyan player's strategy. This formation does not represent Omar Mukhtar because he was not at Kufra during the battle.
Senussi cavalry formations can fight dismounted or execute a “Charge!” maneuver. Charging cavalry has a combat range of just one hex but can perform an exploitation move (like tanks in a standard Memoir ’44 scenario) after a successful attack. Unfortunately, mounted formations make excellent targets for the Italian machine guns so an extra battle dice is added to all attacks rolled against charging cavalry.
I’ve attempted to recreate the fluid nature of the fighting by emphasizing retreats over heavy losses. Grenades only hit when units are adjacent. A flag result takes priority over any casualties. In addition, a star result on the battle dice indicates a retreat for a Libyan formation.
Casualties present a special problem in this scenario. Graziani only suffered losses of around two dozen killed or wounded in the entire battle. A figure removed from an Italian formation could be assumed to represent a frightened soldier taking shelter, an infantryman who is helping a wounded comrade to the rear, a machine gunner who has fired away all of his ammunition, or perhaps an ascari who has become confused in the smoke and dust of battle.
This example of play depicts several Italian formations. Armored cars supported by infantry roll a 4-3-2 pattern on the battle dice and can expend up to three movement points. Armored car formations are permitted to make exploitation attacks like tank units in the standard rules. Biplanes can attack civilians fleeing Kufra or strike Libyan military formations. No aircraft are deployed in the scenario until the airpower event card appears... In the historical narrative the Italian biplanes were committed late in the day.
Tanks can expend just two movement points but fight like armored vehicles in the standard rules. There is a special rule for the Italian artillery formation based on the tactical situation in 1931. Great clouds of sand and dust were created when the battery discharged its cannon and this limited visibility for the gunners. One extra battle dice is added to the first round of firing in a hex (indicated by the target symbol token) but unless the guns move to a new firing position the advantage is lost. Artillery can expend two movement points or fire.
One of the Libyan formations shown in this photograph is the machine gun unit. The insurgents are often described as tribal warriors armed only with rifles. However, the Arabs had three obsolescent howitzers with ample supplies of ammunition and three Maxim guns at El Tag. A random event card mixed into the deck allows the Libyan player to deploy these heavy weapons. The machine gun unit rolls a 4-3-2 pattern on the battle dice and moves like artillery.
Some of the Italian infantry were transported in old Fiat trucks. These formations move like any other mechanized unit. Infantry mounted on trucks has no special combat ability like the armored car formations. Rough terrain costs three movement points for trucks or armored cars to enter but oasis and village hexes cost just one movement point… a quick glance at the old photographs showed just how sparse the vegetation was in these areas.
Graziani (shown here with a staff car and flag bearer) can issue orders to one or two Italian formations up to six hexes away. Special counterattack event cards allow Graziani to issue an extra set of orders outside the normal sequence of play. The Italian player is given a hand of five cards while the Libyan player receives four cards. The Libyan player always moves first, since in the actual battle the tribal forces pushed forward to strike the advancing Italian column. The scenario uses a specially constructed “hot” deck with many unfavorable or useless cards removed to speed play. The scenario ends randomly when the “Finest Hour” card appears near the bottom of the deck.
One element of the battle that I was eager to include in this scenario was a desperate “No retreat!” rule for the Libyan player. In the film tribal warriors were shown tying one leg in kneeling position as a ritual gesture indicating they would die fighting in that spot. This reminded me of a similar action performed by men in the Plains tribes of the American West because those Indians occasionally lashed themselves to the ground with a rawhide lariat and refused to withdraw in the face of the enemy. When a Libyan formation takes that option the kneeling figures can ignore one retreat flag. The number of battle dice rolled against these formations by the Italian player is reduced by one since the Libyans are assumed to be under cover or in defilade positions. However, a separate order is required before a unit in “No retreat!” formation can be moved again.
The residents of Kufra were aware of the approaching Italian force but they were not prepared for the size and intensity of the Italian attack. When the defensive position 20 kilometers north of the main oasis collapsed these civilians began a hasty evacuation. Their withdrawal was hindered by deadly attacks by Italian biplanes and hundreds were killed near Kufra or died later in the desert. To reflect this brutal aspect of the campaign the Libyan player must race to remove these civilians from Kufra after the Italian aircraft are committed to the battle. The Italian player must choose between supporting important combat operations with his biplanes or trying to gain victory points by bombing civilians.
Since the Libyans had no effective anti-tank weapons special rules were developed for the Italian armored units with their Fiat 3000 vehicles. The best the Libyans can hope for is to temporarily disable a tank or force the machine into a soft patch of sand. If a Libyan units scores a lucky hit on a tank formation the wrench token indicates that the unit can’t be moved during the following turn.
The burden of victory is on the Italian player. Points are scored for capturing villages (one point for villages in the northern oasis near Hawari, two points for El Tag, and three points for Kufra) and for destroying Libyan formations. Points are awarded to the Libyan player for destroying an Italian unit (not likely) or reducing an Italian infantry formation to just a single figure. Special rules for demoralization force the Italian player to advance quickly while requiring the Libyan player to hold the northern oasis for several turns. If the Italian army is demoralized Graziani would merely withdraw to his advanced supply base at Bir Zighen and attack again after regrouping but we’ll call that a victory for the Libyan player.
I’ve played this several times and I’m pleased with the results. The invaders were only demoralized once (after a deadly fusillade by a hot-rolling tribal formation early in the session, before the Italians captured any of the northern oasis villages) and with constant rule adjustments I really developed a sense of that magnificent cinematic battle.
Since curious Geeks often ask about my miniatures…
The vehicles are mostly Micro Machines but the armored cars are Axis & Allies Miniatures. The 1:72 figures were produced by HaT or Esci with a large number of toy soldiers from War! Age of Imperialism added to the mix. The vintage Maxim gun is part of my personal collection. The biplane is from Dogfight.
Thank you for taking a few minutes to read this lengthy Session Report.
"If everybody is thinking alike, then somebody isn't thinking."
Here is a full image of the board:
The Italians advance from the north, which is the left side of the map in this photograph. Kufra oasis is the large green area on the right side of the board and El Tag is on the edge of the rough terrain area. The actual battle was fought directly in front of the line of oasis villages extending across the board. Each hex represents about 2 kilometers of terrain.
Another splendid adaptation, Pete! I like the "cavalry charge vs. automatic weapons" rule a lot.
Thanks for the detailed description of unit capabilities. Could you provide a complete unit OB for both sides for the scenario, as in number of each type present, and set-up locations? I'd certainly like to try this one.