Saturday, October 1, 2016

Normandy... a wargamer's paradise

Last Monday I had a recurring thought: "This is one of the best days of my life". I was in Normandy, France with three friends and we were getting a tour of the D-Day battlefields from Colonel Oliver Warman (retired) of the Welsh Guards.

My father likes to recite the old ditty about the highest reaches of the upper class: "The Lowells only talk to the Cabots, and the Cabots only talk to God." Listening to Oliver, I often thought of that saying. Here stood a man who was shown around Normandy after the War by Hans Spiedel, Rommel's chief of staff. Here was a man who dined with Field Marshal Montgomery and called Major General John Frost (of Arnhem fame) "an old family friend". He served under General John Hackett (also of Arnhem) when they were both at NATO, and -- because of his decades long interest in D-Day -- had interviewed most of the battlefield commanders, including all of the Canadian leaders at Juno Beach. 

Colonel Warman indicates where Rommel and Speidel stood when first inspecting the Normandy beaches

Oliver seemed almost ashamed of this access. If we asked him about his acquaintance with King Hussein of Jordan or the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, he'd say sadly, "It's the old boys' club, I'm afraid." Or he would simply scratch his head and say "Well, you know, I am hideously old." His sense of shame was misplaced because I've never met anyone who put privilege to better use. During the tour it was clear that he'd spend 60+ years mulling over the Normandy landings. He had not just quizzed the generals -- he had paced the cow-paths, stared at the topography and questioned local farmers. The fruit of this labour is that he's the author of several books, the teacher of military courses and the leader of one stupendous tour.

Oliver takes cover in a sunken lane*

We talked of why the Canadians took no prisoners during the Battle of Normandy, Rommel's defence strategy, and the bloody beaches of Omaha Beach ("Here the Americans caught a bad cold," he said in one of his more memorable phrases.) 

At one point he said to me, "Small battles are what make up big battles." This simple but important thesis animated the entire tour. Time and again, he would point out how individual companies or battalions negotiated the hills, outflanked the enemy or fell into enfilading fire. (As a gamer, this gave me a new appreciation for the small skirmishes we play on the table-top -- such small engagements are indeed the building blocks of war).  

We are not giving the Nazi salute. Instead, we are following Oliver's sight-line toward Caen and the beaches

Using my phone, I recorded Oliver narrating the story of Operation Biting (aka the Bruneval Raid of February 1942). It's a wonderful piece of oral history -- you can see the way he frames the story around American perceptions of Britain's chances alone against the Nazis. (To be prosaic, I will point out that the Bruneval Raid actually occurred after the USA joined Britain's fight against Hitler. But that's the nature of oral history... there's a kind of truth that transcends details and can only be passed along through good story telling.)

After meeting Oliver, my friends and I headed east to see the Bayeux Tapestry in the town of Bayeux. The museum built around the tapestry is a gem -- the tapestry is presented flawlessly and without distraction in its own dark gallery. Up close, it's hard to describe how beautiful a work it is. No computer screen can capture its texture, life and artistry. 

On the second floor of the Bayeux Museum, there are a series of exhibits, including some wonderful dioramas that would make any hobbyist gape. The picture at the top of this post is from a diorama of the stone quarries on the river Orne near the Norman city of Caen. This stone was shipped to England and was used to create many of William the Conqueror's castles.

Other dioramas included this lovely portrayal of Walkelin, the Norman Bishop of Winchester arriving at the village of East Meon shortly after the Conquest...

And then there was this magnificent recreation of the whole village of East Meon in Hampshire circa 1086. The scale is too small for Warhammer, but it did make my heart skip a beat... how I'd love to run Krapfang and his orcs through those prosperous streets!

To top things off, when I was in Caen, I found a model train store that concealed some hidden treasures. After poking around a bit, I found a near-mint 1/100 scale kit for a model Super Dimension Fortress Macross "Spartan" (also known to Battletech players as an Archer). It was a nice tie-in for my recent orgy of painted Battletech miniatures.

But it's not all fun and games. Both Oliver's tour and the Tapestry brought home to me the all-around shittiness of war. Seeing Oliver scratch out in the sand of Omaha Beach a diagram of the overlapping fields of German machine gun fire was as chilling and depressing experience as I can think of. And even in the Tapestry's glorious portrayal of the Battle of Hastings, there are reminders of how ugly and tawdry a battlefield can be. Here are some close-ups from the lower borders of the cloth showing the looters, hacked-limbs and half-men left over from the combat. Blech.

Well, if you are ever in the market for a WWII tour of Normandy (or for that matter, of Belgium or Tunisia), I can't recommend Oliver Warman more enthusiastically. In the truest sense of the phrase, I was honoured to meet him.

* Have you noticed the Welsh Guards tie affixed to the front of his shirt with what appears to be a diaper pin? The man is stone-cold.


  1. Sounds like a great trip! If only it wasn't so far for me to travel :(

  2. A wargamer's paradise, you've said it! Nice, very nice post!

  3. Delightful read, seriously. I made a trip over the area a few years ago and it's totally recommendable. But you clearly had a real A++ experience! Thanks for sharing!

  4. "Both Oliver's tour and the Tapestry brought home to me the all-around shittiness of war. "

    An important thing to remember, even for those who make a tiny game of war. I almost wonder if part of the appeal of wargaming is that it takes something massive and ghastly and makes it tiny and controlled and ultimately without consequence.

    Also, I wish I hadn't been like, two when my family visited the Bayeux Tapestry, it's cool as anything.

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  6. Hey M...its K...WHAT!!!You went over and haven't called me...maybe now you will be inspired to paint some Bolt Action figs...