Island Fortress 3 – the invasion
This long overdue post records the final resolution of the plans for the French invasion of the British Isles in 1759. See earlier posts for the details of the French and British planning games.
Essentially the French were seeking to sail up the Thames with the support of their new Dutch allies, land a vast army of around 40,000 men just to the east of London and then take the capital, thus knocking Britain out of the Seven Years’ War, saving the imperilled French colonies in the New World and the under-pressure French forces in Flanders.
The teams were Mukul (C-in-C Viscount Ligonier), Richard (Admiral Baron Anson) and Tom (General Viscount Sackville) as the Brits, with Brian (Duc de Choiseul) and Dave (Prince Soubise) reprising their roles as the French and Jaap was stereotyped as the allied Dutch Admiral. The game began in mid-August 1759, with one-day turns.
The French had landed a small diversionary force at Hastings, but the key in the first few turns would be whether the divided British fleets could prevent the French fleets escaping the close blockades and thus bringing together a strong force in the east of the Channel. Some long-range skirmishing disrupted both French fleets but Anson wasn’t able to deliver a knock-out blow, so some of the Brest fleet managed to make it through the Channel, pursued by the Portsmouth squadron. The main Allied invasion fleet sailed from Ostend and, escorted by the Dutch, approached the Kent coast. The concentration of British ships to maintain the blockades on Toulon and Brest meant that the sudden entry of the Dutch had achieved local superiority over the outnumbered Chatham squadron, who nonetheless engaged the enemy closely.
Last minute British fortification in Hastings, tipped off by a Thurot-led French raid in May, meant that although the French were able to thoroughly loot the town but unable to secure it as a base. British reinforcements occupied the town and then pursued the French troops north as they pushed inland. Anson massed his main fleet in the eastern channel and in a fierce battle decisively broke the enemy’s line, defeating the remaining French ships, scattering them and then followed up mercilessly to sink or capture a dozen French ships of the line. This assured British naval supremacy, whatever the result of the action ashore, though British pursuit did mean more of the Allies would be able to land.
While the Brits brought their main fleet back, the Dutch fleet bravely held off attacks by the Chatham squadron, successfully protecting the vast fleet of barges crammed with French, Dutch and Austrian troops. British troops, initially expecting a Kent landing, scrambled back to protect London as reinforcements converged on the capital from the west.
After 4 days of pressure, Ligonier called his commanders back to plan the defence of London as the pace started to overwhelm the defenders. Fearing the powerful concentration of British guns at Tilbury, blocking the entry to the inner Thames, the French decided to land on the shores of south Essex, the Dutch ships taking the brunt of defensive gunnery and the British naval attacks.
The calm weather and sandy coast meant the flat bottomed barges could be drawn right up on the beaches and the vast Allied force flooded out and started to prepare for their march west. The ambitious British militia preparations and training in early 1759 were really paying off now, as they were able to assemble a respectable force of around 15,000 regulars, artillery and militia in London, with more on the way. However, the French had more than double that number ashore, so there was everything to play for still.
The French chose to land all their own infantry and cavalry first, leaving their heavy guns and allies on the barges and at the mercy of the British fleet. Although the Allies were able to get most of their artillery ashore the next day, the remaining barges were sunk and British marines were able to put pressure on the French gunners trying to desperately haul their kit out of range of the British ships.
The French infantry in Sussex, led by Choiseul himself, despite careful marshalling, were eventually run to ground. Cut off, they held their own in two close engagements on the South Downs but eventually ran out of supplies and surrendered. The remnants of the Dutch fleet limped home, having drawn off the British fleet long enough to give the land forces a chance of fulfilling their mission. All eyes turned back to the capital.
The campaign was decided by two ferocious battles at the River Lea. French infantry, exhausted from their rapid deployment and march and running short of supplies, rested and foraged, thinking the river line and their numbers would protect them from any British attacks. Viscount Sackville made the bold decision to attack, hoping to catch the French off-guard, and his boldness paid off, as the French had failed to station sufficient picquets and guards to shield them while looting the local villages for food. The British regulars were able to shatter several of the French formations and cause many casualties before they withdrew to prepare for the inevitable French riposte. Disrupted by the British surprise attack, the main French assault came the next day but the stubborn English battalions managed to hold the river line, inflicting many casualties on the French. Flanking French cavalry were prevented from decisively assisting due to the other rivers in the area and the local militia battalions held back in reserve by Sackville.
The French artillery were mopped up by British marines and sailors, and without their heavy guns the only chance was a final push through the British line. But the terrain, and the exhaustion from a week of action, meant the thousands of Allied troops were not able to break through. The concentration of British forces in London had now grown too strong to defeat. With no prospect of retreat, reinforcement or resupply (as the barges had all been destroyed), Prince Soubise would be forced to surrender. The game ended there.
We’d managed to complete this epic trilogy of games and I was pleased to see how close it was in the end. Both sides felt enormously under pressure and the French were in with a good chance of taking London until Sackville’s successful raid across the Lea.
The rules, which I’d written from scratch, seemed to work reasonably well though Brian, with a much deeper understanding of eighteenth century battles than me, felt the combat did not adequately reflect the decisive nature of Seven Years’ War battles, being too attritional. I thought the simple hidden orders element worked really well too, though perhaps Dave had too many troops to manage in the main Allied land force which might explain why they were all foraging at once! The more abstract naval battles rules needed much more work but seemed to give enough flavour.
I have mixed feelings about the whole project. I enjoyed the planning games, but the French one was over-manned at 6 players. I would like to try something similar again at some point, but didn’t think it was a stunning success. Making the simple but attractive maps was fun, and the French invasion was sufficiently focused that I was able to pre-produce a larger scale version around Essex and London as well as the larger maps. This kept some tension for the British players about the final target, which was vital for the scenario.
I’d be interested to hear from the players about their experience, even though this all happened months ago. Mukul wrote up his views in an email.