Saturday 31 December 2022

Air War Games

Well, here we are again, a New Year (nearly) and the same old stuff. This time I have been reading another old wargaming book, this time helpfully republished in the ‘History of Wargaming’ series by John Curry.

As those of you with the slightest interest in these things will know, there are precisely two books on air wargaming, which makes it an even more marginal wargaming activity than naval wargaming. This second book is, in fact, the earlier published one:

Donald Featherstone’s Air War Games: Wargaming Aerial Warfare 1914 – 1975 (revised edition, ed. John Curry, 2020).

As the original was published in 1966, the dates in the title indicate where some of the revisions occur. The book includes some rules and games for air combat over South-East Asia in the late 1960s. This, and a couple of other chapters on defending the Reich in 1944 and being in Bomber Command in 1943 are not Featherstone chapters, I don’t think. But they are worth having.

The updating does not stop there. The chapters on available models, commercial air wargames, and research are changed almost in their entirety. Hence it is revised; not the original text. This means that at times the editorial voice is rather intrusive, if not dominant. This is a good thing in some senses: most of the model information and the reference books are, to say the least, well out of date. On the other hand, occasionally, the editor’s footnotes, explaining bits of Featherstone’s text, can feel a bit more intrusive. I am not sure whether it is helpful; perhaps I am more used to dealing with old texts on their own terms.

Still, as with most of Featherstone’s books, it is quite a lot of fun. The chapter on methods of using model aircraft conjurers up a load of images in my mind of middle-aged wargamers clambering on top of their tables to string fishing line and cotton across them, and attaching nylon to their precious models to let them slide down wire to drop their bombs. I do not know if anyone really took this up, to be honest. In my hands, anyway, it simply would not work because I am just not that handy.

The key problem is aerial warfare is, of course, the dreaded third dimension. I suppose this is true also in fantasy and science-fiction games as well. Things that fly, aeroplanes, spaceships, and weird bat-like creatures, are always going to pose a problem for the wargamer. We know there is a third dimension, it is just that things in it refuse to stay put. Until someone invents an anti-gravity force field for wargaming, or wargames on a space station, that is the way it is going to stay.

Other methods of suspending aircraft in mid-air have other issues. Basically putting them on telescopic stands works nicely for air-to-air combat, but not for air-to-ground because the base of the telescopic bit gets in the way of the ground forces, or vice-versa. Perhaps some entrepreneurs in the future will invent wargame scale model aircraft as tiny drones.

Anyway, you get some interesting stuff here. As I may have mentioned in earlier posts, Featherstone is well aware that land, sea, and air warfare are all interlinked. He also has a bit on weather in air wargames which is quite helpful. It is not as detailed as Spick’s but does note (which Spick might but not that I recall) that for, say, a bombing raid to be viable the weather at both ends (and in between) needs to be suitable. There is no point in taking off on a beautiful evening in East Anglia if you cannot so much as find Germany, let alone your target because it is shrouded in thick fog.

There are some interesting ideas. Possibly the most interesting to me, although underdeveloped in the book, is a totally map-based game at 1 mm to the mile and 6 minutes to the move. This was the idea of an Edinburgh wargamer, Charles Dick. The location of your aircraft is recorded in a notebook which has one page for each 20 by 20-mile square, and the wargamers write (in pencil) the location of their squadrons, etc. Next move, these are erased and re-written on the next appropriate page until contact is made, at which point silhouettes of the aircraft are shown to the opponent. As Featherstone gnomically remarks, firing and determination of casualties is worked out by ‘whatever methods the combatants desire.’

Having been pondering, for a specific purpose, how to incorporate aerial warfare into wargames, this seems to me to be a workable system that could be updated for the Twenty-First Century using, for example, a spreadsheet or two. The system would also work for air and sea warfare, such as (as DF suggests) Midway.

One of the vital activities in air warfare, I have learned from reading these books on air wargaming, is the reconnaissance and spotting role. It seems to me that these roles are somewhat under-represented in most wargames I have seen set in the Twentieth Century and beyond. And that is a shame, because much of the interest, for me at least, lies there.

As an example I have been watching Warplane Workshop, an obscure series (actually, the Estimable Mrs. P. expressed a wish to see it, as it is about something that neither of us knows anything about) on an obscure UK TV channel (More 4, for those interested). The first program was about restoring and flying a Spitfire Mark 19, which was a reconnaissance, late-war, aircraft, also used for chasing V1s. The problem it was to solve, at least initially, was finding the German forces retreating through France and other bits of Western Europe. After all, you cannot defeat the enemy if you do not know where they are. The methods of handling a very fast aircraft trying to find armed forces that have no wish to be found, in the early morning (to get the shadows) with an oblique camera can only be imagined.

On the other hand, I do recall R. V. Jones remarking that the reconnaissance flights were vital, and he discovered a method of making life easier. The commandos raided a German radar site (I forget where, on the coast of France), really to steal as much as they could of it to see what it was and how it worked. This had the knock-on effect of causing the Germans to place barbed wire around their radar installations which made the job of spotting them a lot easier, as the pictures showed rings of uncut grass around them. Warfare is full of unintended consequences.

Happy New Year.


  1. You are thinking of Bruneval:
    Do you think this title and/or the Spick book stands up as worth the time of the modern wargamer in its own right, or is it more for nostalgia/wargaming historiography?

    1. Ah, yes, thank you. That's the one.
      I think the Spick book certainly stands up to contemporary wargaming. I'm not as sure about Featherstone (to be fair, it is even older). But while there is a fair bit of nostalgia and historiography in re-reading these books, they do offer good insights into the problems of wargaming and the compromises necessary to wargame at all, and some creative ideas for solving them. These are not always the ones we adopt today, but often they are recognisable. So worth reading.