One of WWII’s bloodiest battles was the allied attempt to break through Italy into Europe, an attempt held up by dogged German resistance at the Gothic Line.
Don’t worry this isn’t going to be a review about some band in eyeliner singing about vampires and poisonous herbs, it’s actually an account of one of WWII’s most overlooked areas of operations – the Italian Front.
Soldiers sent to the invasion of Italy were sometimes known as ‘D-day dodgers’, a terribly unfair nickname given that the Italian campaign was every bit at horrific, bloody and dangerous as the Normandy invasion, but fought in some appalling weather conditions of mud, rain and freezing temperatures… which made Gunman’s event all the more appropriate.
Now if you say ‘Italy’ to someone they think of pizza, marble and sandstone buildings, the roman empire and blazing sunshine, but by the winter of 1944 the Allies had fought their way into the ‘soft underbelly of Europe’ as Churchill had named it and reached a stumbling block. While the Italian’s had had enough of Mussolini and surrendered to join the Allies, the Germans were having none of it and dug their heels into Italy’s ‘boot’ with even greater gusto.
And so the scene was set. Allied (Commonwealth/British and American) armies had fought their way through the south of Italy but had now reached the mighty German ‘gothic line’ of fortifications, tank traps, bunkers and minefields. Even though hard pressed in the North of Europe the German defenders were far from beaten in Italy and had the advantage of holding strong defensive terrain.
At Gunman’s game, staged at a site never used for airsoft before – a huge, wooded, former quarry and equestrian centre – it was ideal weather conditions to replicate the battle… cold , misty, wet and with harsh terrain. Rarely does a site suit a ‘filmsim’ battle so well, but you could really imagine yourself in some frosty mountainous forest in 1944.
After a prompt safety brief the two opposing forces divided into their respective platoons. Yes, I said platoons! This was a BIG game and for once each platoon actually looked like a group of 20 or so WWII combat soldiers, as the commander on the German side this would be my toughest test yet – a proper ‘company action’ against a determined and experience enemy commander.
No Plan Survives Contact With The Enemy
Not only was this a massive battle by WWII airsoft standards (with around over 60 a side) but we also had a staggering amount of WWII vehicles to play with including heavy troop carrying trucks, light utility vehicles, motor cycle combinations and even an armoured car!
So dug in on the morning of day one my platoons waited for the allied advance, my anti tank guns were fully crewed, my infantry dug in and my mobile reserve waiting on their vehicles, engines running. It all seemed perfect! Contact was made and the plan for once appeared to be surviving contact with the enemy; but it turns out Von Clausewitz was right (Google him.. it will be easier than explaining it) and quite quickly EVERYTHINGstarted to fall apart as the numerically superior allies smashed through the first line of defence and the radio net was full of my platoon commanders desperately seeking new order, back up rally points and casualty reports.
Never one to throw in the towel to quickly I had a rapid conflab with my long suffering 2IC, Evo, and we decided the best course of action was to pull back to a smaller frontage before attempting to outflank the allies. Now that was my plan but actually putting it into the hands of the guys on the ground, the players, the lads doing the hard work was the trick. But with top quality platoon commanders and some nifty map and compass work we managed to extricate our platoons from combat and into a much tighter defensive line at a ‘choke point’ on the site. Now the shoe was on the other foot, not only were our men now much closer to ammo resupply points but we were also quite closely packed, so platoons were able to give each other fire support.
Deciding now was the time I advanced the right flank of the German line forward, out-flanking the Americans facing them and then proceeded to advance the German force, platoon by platoon both forwards and towards our own left flank and using the mechanised platoon to quickly plug up any gaps in the line. Slowly the German line pivoted, anchored on our left flank, and like a giant door slamming forced the allies back to their starting positions! Now this is a tricky enough manoeuvre with real soldiers (as I’ve learnt in my years in the forces in the past) so to pull it off with guys playing at soldiers was a real tribute to their skill and discipline in the field. Seizing the momentum the Axis forces kept up the pressure and pushed the Allies right back to the positions held at the start of the day. A real thorn in our side had been the Allies armoured car, this was impervious to most small arms and I was overjoyed to be told over the radio that our ‘tank hunter’ team with a bazooka had destroyed it after stalking it for over an hour, showing real patience, skill and team spirit by sticking to the plan rather than chasing ‘kills’ that were easier to get.
And thus at the end of the first day we Germans felt we were in with a fair chance here, we’d taken a beating but given back as good as we got; whether we could hold on for another day was the real question and once that could only be answered in the field after a good nights sleep!
I awoke the next day to find my tent pretty much covered with ice, it was literally freezing! But with the usual Gunman professionalism the event team got all the players up, breakfasted and into the field pretty much on time; quite some feat given that the weather was so damn cold.
Everything Falls Apart
Back in our defensive positions it was clear that today would be much tougher, as with many events spanning two days, but with an option to buy day tickets, we’d lost a few men who’d gone home (understandably given the weather) after a great day the day before. But, undaunted, we planned for a renewed Allied assault. Digging in around the AT guns we send our motorcycle and sidecar units on a mission to mine the major approach roads (with some artfully crafted repro ‘teller’ mines that pressure detonated flash bangs) before withdrawing them to provide mobile fire support from their sidecar mounted MG42s. Thus with a sound plan in place Evo and I stood by the radio while it all fell apart!
The Allies were really on form, co-ordinating their assaults well position after position fell and within a few hours we were close to being totally overrun, forcing Evo and I to relocate our HQ (this helped us out no end as a large force of US paras spent a long time attacking and occupying a ‘dead’ objective) to a more secure site. But, eventually even this position was in danger of being overrun and deciding we’d done all we could to delay the Allies the decision was made to withdraw. Each platoon was tasked with making their best efforts to attempt to destroy an Allied radio post before exfiltrating to a rally point on the map and we wished them Godspeed as we sent them off.
Sadly we were pretty much surrounded and only a few guys managed to even get close to the radio point before being taken out. In our eyes the Allies had broken through the Gothic line but we’d retained honour by holding them off until the 11th hour.
Well that’s how it looked to us anyway. As fate would have it Gunman’s ‘El Presidente’ Josh explained at the debrief that the Allies, while romping all over objectives, had utterly failed in their main task to locate and clear a route through the mined roads! And so while their infantry basked in the glory of a job, seemingly well done, they were told that the advancing ‘breakthrough’ armour had suffered horrendous losses due to mines! The moral of the story it would seem is to ALWAYS focus on your objectives, not on the gunfights.
Driving home Evo and I couldn’t help feel that despite some tiny frustrations (as you’re always going to get with an event hosting more than 100 players) it was probably one of the biggest and best WWII events we’ve been to yet. And we’ve been to a lot!
Just one last thing… Many thanks to Ray Pearce for his amazing photography.