Gaming the knock-out blow — III

A key element in any wargame is the scenario. It sets the boundaries in time and space of the simulation, as well as its initial conditions. For a historical wargame, a scenario might be the battle of Cannae, or the British and Canadian sectors at D-Day. Creating such scenarios involves researching orders of battle, contemporary maps, unit diaries, histories and so on. From this research flows the game map, units and the rules themselves. For a counterfactual and indeed retrofuturistic game of the knock-out blow such as I'm contemplating, there are by definition no historical events to draw upon. So where would I start?

One way is to just create a generic scenario, drawing on my own understanding of interwar airpower writing. The obvious one would be the classic knock-out blow scenario, with Germany launching a surprise attack on London, and a war lasting a few days. That has the advantage of being relatively unconstrained and easy to design, and fits in well with the microgame approach Philip Sabin recommends. And I may well do just that. But there's another way, which is to use some of the scenarios imagined during the interwar period itself.

These were quite common, even setting aside novels depicting future war. It was a good way of dramatising all the more or less abstract but straightforwardly non-fictional discussions of bombers always getting through and cities being drenched in gas, of making them more concrete. So, for example, in The Reformation of War (1923), an otherwise non-fictional and analytical book, J. F. C. Fuller provides a little three-page scenario, beginning with 'It is a lovely day, not a cloud in the sky', and showing how airlanded (or -dropped, it's not clear) tanks armed with incapacitating gas could knock-out Parliament and Whitehall and secure victory within hours.1 But in the airpower context, the master of these fictional asides was L. E. O. Charlton, who wrote at least three of them -- one was even published separately as a novel.2 Briefly, they run as follows:

  • The Next War. Britain and France vs Germany and Italy, the late 1930s. Without warning, Germany launches a decapitation strike against London one fine Saturday in June, with 18 bombers attacking the RAF Display with high explosive, gas and incendiaries, causing mass panic in the crowd, 150,000 casualties, 40% of Fighter Command personnel, much of the Air Ministry, and many ministers and MPs. An attack on the Lots Road Power Station shortly afterwards knocks out power to the Underground, and more panic amongst the 250,000 passengers, 80,000 of whom are killed fleeing through the tunnels. The next raids knock out the docks and warehouses of London, Liverpool, Hull and elsewhere. French cities have also been attacked. The Italian air force has wiped out the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean. Bomber Command deploys to France to bomb German and Italian aerodromes. On Sunday, rationing of food and petrol begins. Government and Parliament evacuate London, and anyone with a car follows suit. The poor have little choice but to stay put. Unrest breaks out between immigrant groups, and shops own by foreigners are smashed by mobs. Troops attempt to put down the unrest but in some cases are forced to open fire, causing more panic. A further raid on London that night (with 50 bombers, 80 having set out) drops incendiaries and raises up to 10,000 fires. Further raids target water supplies of London and other cities. Paris and Rome are also bombed that night. Malaise sets in on Monday and Tuesday. Communications start to break down. London sinks into apathy, as people continue to make their way to the countryside where food stores are located. But the population in the provincial cities is more unruly. France has had enough and makes peace with Germany; Bomber Command's units return to Britain. This means that there is now no way to reach German cities and air defence is the only hope. But on Tuesday night, the Germans deploy sound decoys to draw off the remaining RAF fighters, and drop mustard gas on the large concentrations of civilians camped outside London. The British government asks for terms before dawn.3
  • The Last War. Britain vs Germany (initially), the early 1960s, June. This is the sequel to the previous war. Britain has spent the intervening twenty-five years preparing to fight another aerial war. It has now discarded fighters altogether, risking everything on its self-defending bombers. But it has also greatly expanded and trained Territorial air defence units (anti-aircraft, searchlights, obstacles) and thoroughly trained and organised the population to carry out ARP and evacuation. Industries have moved out of the cities, ministries practice doing so in the event of war. Moreover, populations themselves have begun to be dispersed. This is all hugely expensive, and Britain's finances are strained to the limit. When it is learned that Germany and Italy have agreed to split up Austria and British colonies, the British government decides to strike. Evacuation is begun; an ultimatum is given; war begins an hour later. 10 minutes later, the RAF's bombers depart 10 minutes after it expires. On the first night, 810 bombers in total attack German cities with 1500 tons of gas, high explosive and incendiaries, all delivered by gliding bombs; they take only 5% casualties. Too disorganised to return the attack immediately, German robot bombers attack London the next morning, to little effect. The RAF continues its raids on German cities that afternoon; the German fighter forces wear themselves out on the heavily-armed British bombers, which themselves now suffer a casualty rate of 12%. A combined German and Italian raid on London and the Midlands that night causes significant casualties, but morale holds. British scouts detect another incoming German raid soon afterwards. RAF bombers use this perfect intelligence to intercept the German bombers, which they can do because they are well-armed whereas their opponents are not, having traded guns for bombs. The RAF takes 30% casualties, but the German air force takes 70%. Germany's weakness sparks a new train of wars: the Little Entente and France vs Italy, Poland vs the Little Entente, Russia vs Poland, Japan vs Russia, China vs Japan. Britain is now able to stand apart and watch Europe tear itself apart, nearly to death. But after a week, it and the United States (which hops its bombers across the Atlantic by way of floating aerodromes) impose peace, restoring the League of Nations, controlling international aviation, and creating an international air force, the only military force in the world, to keep the peace.4
  • The Menace of the Clouds. Italy vs Egypt and the International Strategic Reserve (ISR), July 1942. After anti-Italian riots in Cairo and Alexandria, an Italian fleet is sent to Alexandria. It sends carrier fighters over Cairo which drop leaflets inciting the people to rise up against their government, even though that government is quite anxious to appease Italy. Egyptian Air Force fighters escort the Italian fighters back to the fleet, but the latter are alarmed and open fire. There are losses on both sides. Italy uses this as an excuse to bomb the Egyptian aerodrome at Heliopolis and overnight invades from Libya and Abyssinia. The League of Nations immediately orders an withdrawal and a Tribunal of International Justice hearing, but Italy ignores both bodies. The Tribunal accordingly declares Italy to be an aggressor and orders the ISR (the international air force established in 1937 and based in Tunisia, with advanced aerodromes in France and Poland) to take action. Therefore, the evening after the invasion of Egypt, the ISR bombs Spezia, Pola and Taranto, the three main Italian ports, out of action. The following dawn the ISR attacks a string of hydroelectric power stations in the Apennines. ISR forces take very few casualties in these raids. In the afternoon, Italy is formally notified that unless it surrenders by 6pm, two cities out of Genoa, Turin, Palermo, Cagliari, Ferrara, Reggio and Bari will be bombed with high explosive and incendiaries. The Fascist government considers a mass attack on the ISR base in Tunisia, but this is considered unlikely to succeed given its strong defences and underground aerodromes. Evacuation of the named cities is another option, but this would risk demoralising the populace. But not to evacuate would be worse, because then the government would take the blame for the casualties. It turns out that it's too late anyway. The Italian people has already learned of the reprisals after notice; workers go on strike; protest meetings spring up; even the Blackshirts rebel. The Duce, Pizzicato, surrenders unconditionally. And that was the last war ever (at least until 2000).5

So, these are three different knock-out blow scenarios which encapsulate a number of the usual variations (though not so much commercial bombers, sadly), from the classic scenario (The Next War), to a high-tech version with civil defence (The Last War), to the international air force (The Menace of the Clouds). They also provide quite a bit of information about force levels, target systems, attrition rates, and victory conditions. There would necessarily be gaps to fill in, but Charlton's scenarios could easily provide the basis for several games of the knock-out blow.


  1. J. F. C. Fuller, The Reformation of War (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1923), 185. 

  2. L. E. O. Charlton, The Next War (London, New York and Toronto: Longmans, Green and Co., 1937). 

  3. L. E. O. Charlton, War Over England (London, New York and Toronto: Longmans, Green and Co., 1936), 153-234; Charlton, The Next War

  4. Charlton, War Over England, 237-87. 

  5. L. E. O. Charlton, The Menace of the Clouds (London, Edinburgh and Glasgow: William Hodge & Company, 1937), 286-93. 

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6 thoughts on “Gaming the knock-out blow — III

  1. An attack on the Lots Road Power Station shortly afterwards knocks out power to the Underground, and more panic amongst the 250,000 passengers, 80,000 of whom are killed fleeing through the tunnels.

    In this timeline, the British clearly hadn’t made the strategically vital technological breakthrough known as “the pocket torch”, especially when used by a member of the Transport Salaried Staffs Association….the fact that they couldn’t conceive of a routine emergency response drill that is used for real, fairly frequently, is a big hint to the huge DREAD OF THE SEETHING INFERIOR MASSES that underlies so much airpower thinking.

  2. Post author

    To be fair to Charlton, he is aware that breakdowns routinely happen in the Underground without passengers immediately turning into a rampaging mob (War Over England, 165):

    It does happen on occasion that trains stop in mid-tunnel by reason of some mechanical breakdown, and those who have experienced a stoppage of the sort describe it vaguely alarming, as being a little like rats caught in a trap. But the all-necessary ventilation fans never cease, on these occasions, to revolve, and as long as the air is good to breathe nothing, they think, can be very wrong. They are reassured by the train attendants and if the lights should also fail there is a sufficient battery supply on board. If the delay is likely to be long they move off down the line to the nearest station ahead or back and pursue their journey in the open air. Every possible contingency is provided for and actual danger is decried.

    And in the account of the attack itself (which, in fine future history style, at this point is taken from a ‘primary source’ written by a survivor afterwards), he even has a ‘conductor, carrying a flash torch [who] attempted a journey of reassurance from carriage to carriage’, though it is too crowded for him to get far (ibid., 168). But it’s the lack of ventilation which causes the initial panic (ibid.):

    A woman at the end of my carriage suddenly shouted, ‘I can’t breathe,’ and went off into hysterics. The air had indeed become lifeless and myself, I was clammy with sweat. The next thing was that a man started up and shrieked, ‘My God! The ventilation’s stopped. We shall suffocate.’ At that several people lost their heads and began to batter at the sliding-doors crying ‘open-up.’ But the conductor, jammed in the end coach, could not reach the actuating key even if it had been possible to let people out on to the line.

    “The noise of hammering and the crash of falling glass came from neighbouring coaches. Unable to endure the stifling atmosphere passengers were helping themselves to what they thought fresh air, and soon people around me were doing the same. There was momentary relief, but panic was rapidly setting in, and several people were down and being trodden on, The air was well filled with shrieks of hysteria, of pain and of protest.

    Etc. That said, this only pushes the panic trigger back a bit, and you are absolutely right, Alex, to say that this is of a piece with the fear and loathing of the mob that is prevalent in knock-out blow theory. In fact, I would say that this fear and loathing is particularly evident in Charlton’s writing, despite, or maybe even because of, his socialism. His anti-Semitism might have had something to do with it, too. Which does raise a moral question: I’m making a game not out of reality (which is problematic enough) but out of somebody’s fears, which were based on some unpleasant beliefs. In a sense is this not validating those beliefs? To go straight for the Godwin, if I were to make a game simulating the Nazi belief that Jews were a cancer eating away at German society, how would this be functionally different from an actual Nazi game doing the same thing? (Cf. Juden Raus!, 1936.) Perhaps this underscores the necessity to make it clear that this is an alternate reality that is being simulated, as previously discussed.

  3. But it’s better than that – we had a total loss of power to much of the tube a few years ago without anyone getting hurt, and it must have happened before.

  4. Quite the Tom Clancy of the 1930′s, that Mr Charlton – each year a new book with a new war scenario.

    But back to the point … I’m not clear what line your wargame is going to take. Are you trying primarily (1) to establish whether the balance of forces in a given (real world) year would have made a knock-out feasible or (2) to work out the conditions/force levels that would have made it a realistic possibility? Or both?

  5. I can certainly see how you’d do this in a Eurogame format. Card play, worker placement, victory through an “Apocalypse Track.” The first country over 20 collapses into roving gangs of post-punk cosplayers fighting over the last tank of gasoline.

    As very large-grain resource management simulation, ditto. Every participating power makes a series of decisions that push up its bomber capability over time. Subsidise civil aviation to create large bomber forces? R&D for that killer super dirigible? Direct spending on bombers, fighters, AA? Every turn you play a card and adjust the technological progress tracks. When the “war” card comes up, the balloon goes up. The relative efficacy of fighters, bombers, AA, civil defence are given by interactions of the technological progress track. Apocalypse follows for the person who managed their resources worst.

    But as for pushing counters across a map –there I’m a little stymied.

  6. Post author

    Alex:

    Sure, you’d think so. I’m not saying that Charlton knew what he was talking about, just that he had anticipated your objections.

    Nick:

    Quite the Tom Clancy of the 1930?s, that Mr Charlton – each year a new book with a new war scenario.

    Though fewer have been made into Ben Affleck movies. To date, anyway.

    I’m not clear what line your wargame is going to take. Are you trying primarily (1) to establish whether the balance of forces in a given (real world) year would have made a knock-out feasible or (2) to work out the conditions/force levels that would have made it a realistic possibility? Or both?

    Neither! See the previous discussion for more, but I’m thinking of a representation of what it was thought would happen — which is what my forthcoming book is about — rather than what would have happened or could have happened. I understand the confusion, though — it’s not something that any wargames I know of try to do. I’m not even sure what to call it — It’s not a historical game, or even a counterfactual/alternate historical one, really. Maybe future historical, or paleofuturistic?

    Erik:

    Interesting, I hadn’t really thought of a Eurogame approach (possibly because I do tend to prefer ‘traditional’ wargames, with a map for example, myself). The game you outline could work very well for, say, the 25 years between Charlton’s ‘next war’ and ‘last war’, since Britain uses that time to reshape itself for aerial warfare, while the other nations do likewise but in a slightly different way. The KOB itself could be handled as a die roll at the end of the game, say, with modifiers depending on what each nation had invested in (-2 for early warning, +1 for long-range escorts). Or maybe that’s too random and victory should be determined by VPs awarded; if nobody has a big enough lead then everyone loses as Europe slides into the abyss. The trouble is preventing someone from launching a KOB whenever they have a preponderance of forces — ie Germany pretty much always, in the KOB view — though I suppose that’s a lesson in itself.

    As for pushing counters across a map, again, see the previous discussion. It doesn’t have to be fun or fair or balanced, only representative. A true KOB is inherently one-sided and doesn’t make for a great game, which is why simulation is a better term (though that has connotations of accuracy and verisimilitude, whereas a paleofuturistic game can only ever be impressionistic). The only winning move is not to play (or play as Germany).

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