Chestnut Lodge Wargames Group

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.

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3 Comments
  1. Nick Luft

    A pity I missed the outcome session, though it’s interesting to find out how others interpreted your plan.

    I enjoyed the planning session. A lot to discuss and a lot to consider. I think you are correct about the planning session, 6 players were perhaps too many for one side. I would suggest less than three would not be sufficient either.

    Of course, being the French I would suggest that those hastily raised militia units would be as much use as a chocolate fireguard. We was robbed at the Lea! Would you publish your rules?

    Overall I was really impressed by this sort of game. Two separate groups – unknown to each other – planning one of those “what if” historical scenarios with another group doing the fighting. I am wondering what other “what ifs” could be given this treatment.

  2. Peter Merritt

    The concept of a French invasion in 1759 seems rather ‘SF/Alternate Reality’ to me, unless they get support from an alien fleet to take-out the massive (and massively effective) Royal Navy. But – based purely on the game reports I’ve seen – not sure how much a militia would be worth in anything approaching stand-up encounters with regulars (closest I get, example wise, is early AWI with American militia who were no strangers to firearms but which were crap face-to-face (although having no bayonets didn’t help), only skirmishing or defending major obstacles being any use. I think the LDV of 1940 would have made a better showing, but still vs Germans more knife through butter. Worth a couple of ‘D’ markers (at most) but not a battle…

    Still, planning games always interesting, cf Brian’s French strategic plans for Agincourt campaign.

  3. Brian Cameron

    I certainly wasn’t the right player to lead the French team as I’m far from convinced that a successful invasion was possible (historically). One aspect is the British naval superiority which would always make any attempt to move troops in barges across the channel (difficult in the best of weather) virtually impossible.

    The British fleet was so dominant in the channel, raiding the French ports at will that it’s difficult to see how a decisions to invade could have gone ahead. It’s not surprising that the historical plan in 1759 (to sail barges filled with troops across the channel without a covering fleet!) was abandoned in the face of the British naval superiority.

    The other is the problem of a suitable landing spot. The Thames estuary is not as obvious as the south coast but not a good one. Anywhere further north gives the British lots of time to raise forces and probably more of a supply problem.
    The extent to which supply was going to be a problem with an invasion is debateable. It would be impossible to move large quantities of supplies across the channel and thus troops would depend on the areas marched through for subsistence. Despite the common view that mid-18th century armies always had long supply trains there are plenty of examples of armies living off occupied territory (Frederick the bastard, sorry great was good at it). Thus the decision to take few supplies with us was not, I think, unrealistic but I should perhaps have better explained our thinking.

    The decision about foraging was a misunderstanding by Dave when he was told that he would need to forage. He thought it meant that he had to scatter the army to do so. Some background on the operation of mid-18th century armies would have been useful for those who (like Dave) aren’t knowledgeable about the period. I feel this something it would have been useful to clarify to Dave at the time. Afterwards, I regretted staying at my post down on the south coast instead of helping Dave out but felt that there was no point in having two tables if I could just shuttle back and forth between the two areas of operation.

    My other problem was the combat. This followed a model of daily combat with attritional losses. Even at that I felt it was quite crude. Having outlined a plan for a sudden pre-dawn attack on the British the only outcome was that I lost a +1 modifier for coming down from a hill top to do so. Overall, I regret to say that it didn’t reflect what I know of mid-18th century battles (a period I’ve studied quite a lot).

    Battles were fairly decisive at this time and would entail typical losses of 20% (and higher) casualties on each side. It would be almost impossible to sustain that level of exhausting activity with the consequent disorganisation on the following day. It was very undesirable if you were the losing side with shattered morale; a much better bet was to put space between you and the victor while the victor was also recovering. I certainly can’t think of any examples of effective pursuit after battles at this time which would suggest that the victor was capable of fighting for more than a single day.

    I should also mention that historically the Militia Act was only passed in 1757 but even if the militia had been created some years before, a few months of part-time training (they are a militia and therefore not available for full-time training) would not have been anything like the equivalent of regular troops in manoeuvring and firing, apart from lack any experience of the shock of combat.

    I’d certainly suggest a more realistic model of combat, possibly with an allowance for strategems to misdirect the enemy as to the main effort on the battlefield and several resolution stages so that the commitment of reserves would be of value. But given the problems of actually crossing the channel, I’d suggest assuming that after the planning stage some unusual combination of circumstances permits the French to land and then focus on the land campaign.

    Brian

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