31 May 2024

Day of the Jackals - June 1941

Mad dogs and Englishmen. Tin cans and pop guns. A Levantine dust-up under the midday sun. 

This is the fifth in a series of posts highlighting designs currently under development for my forthcoming scenario pack. In this pitched urban battle, British infantry must hold off a superior Vichy force equipped with a panoply of armour. The Royal Fusiliers have a few tricks up their sleeves, but face a fearsome opponent with hometown advantage.

The invasion of Syria was not going well. Far from capitulating during the first days of Operation Exporter—as the Free French had assured their allies—Vichy forces had fought stubborn delaying actions. Now, only a week into Exporter, the defenders had begun a series of skillful counterattacks. One powerful thrust had as its goal the market centre of El Kuneitra. The town lay astride a key road junction that linked the central and eastern Allied columns. After brushing aside screening forces at Sassa and blocking all routes into town, a battle group of some 50 armoured vehicles and 1500-2000 infantrymen was poised to assault Kuneitra in the early hours of 16 June. Facing them was a understrength British infantry battalion and a pair of cheeky “Monkey-Harrys.”

Situation in Syria 15 June 1941


Kuneitra is located about 60 kilometres southwest of Damascus. In 1985-1986 I was stationed within walking distance of Quneitra. By that time it had been a ghost town for more than a decade following the Yom Kippur War. However, the terrain around the town remains much as it has always been, flat like most of the rocky plateau it is built upon. (A few kilometres west of the town are two large hills, rising some 200 metres above the plateau. But these played no role significant in the battle.) Fertile volcanic soil combined with hot, dry summers makes the area ideal for the cultivation of stone fruit and grapes. Apart from a sizeable Orthodox church and the minarets of mosques, Kuneitra’s otherwise flat-topped buildings seldom had more than one upper storey. Natural vegetation was, and remains, sparse. 

El Kuneitra 1929

Some accounts of the action speak of a low anti-tank “wall” almost a metre thick at the north end of town, either side of a roadblock on the main road leading to Damascus. At the opposite end of Kuneitra, a semi-circular anti-tank ditch was likewise intended to impede French armour. However, because the portion of the battle I chose to focus on took place closer to the town centre, I ignored these perimeter fortifications.  

You may have noticed that I’m a fan of Fort’s “fat-boards,” boards that Gary Fortenberry first popularized in his A Decade of War [2010], or ASL Action Pack 6. It may nonetheless surprise you to learn that I chose a board from Gary’s first “Burma” pack to represent Kuneitra.1 Hear me out.

ASL Action Pack 9’s board 8a looks something like a Burmese town carved out of a jungle hillside, right down to the pagoda-like structure on one summit. A provincial town, perhaps, replete with shabby dwellings and sturdier administrative and religious structures. Congested in some areas, open in others. A lusher, hilly version of Kuneitra, if only...

Kuneitra on board 8a - ASL Action Pack 9 -rooftops in play

Remove hills. Sub brush for woods. And invoke rooftops (B23.8). I could go a step further and transform brush into vineyards (B12.7). 

There may well be a good historical case for this last change, especially on the outskirts of Kuneitra. However, ASL vineyards would create swaths of Bog (D8.2) terrain on each side of town. If I had wanted a proxy for the previously mentioned anti-tank wall, vineyards might have been an acceptable substitute. That said, the attacker’s options would have been more limited and replay value may have suffered as a result. Vineyards are also Inherent Terrain (B.6). Unlike a brush hex, the entire vineyard hex, inclusive of hexsides, is a Line of Sight (LOS) Hindrance. This change would remove many clear LOS and arguably benefit attacking Infantry more than the defender. And in light of the generally low Firepower values available to each side, these added Hindrances would make it difficult to have any effect on a target without first closing to Point Blank (A7.21) range.

Brush is not without merit though. In contrast to woods, it cannot be Bypassed. Unless entered along a road, it costs a minimum of 2 Movement Points (MP) to enter, 6 for vehicles that are bound by truck movement (D1.15). Considering that the fastest tank in the French order of battle (OB) has an MP allotment of 8, brush is a satisfactory impediment to movement. 

Rooftops were a late addition to the card. They offer the defender another way to capitalize on an often underrated Support Weapon (SW). Time to see what the British bring to the party.

On Orr’s Orders?

The Commanding Officer of the 1st Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, Lieutenant-Colonel A. D. G. Orr, had three rifle companies and a Battalion Headquarters Company with him in Kuneitra. (Orr’s “C” Company was in Kiswe with the rest of the 5th Indian Brigade.) The Fusiliers shared the town with two Marmon-Herrington armoured cars of 1st The Royal Dragoons. According to a British officer’s account some 35 years later, Orr had directed that these cars be “dug in” overlooking the roadblock at the north end of the town, sacrificing mobility in the process. Closer to this barrier Orr positioned his unit’s best anti-tank asset, an Italian anti-aircraft gun captured in Eritrea a year earlier. I have yet to find another source that confirms these deployments. 

By August 2022, the main parameters of “Day of the Jackals” had been laid out. Within six months, however, Le Franc Tireur (LFT) had released the fifteenth issue of its eponymous house magazine. Inside is a scenario entitled FT284 “Vichy Strikes Back.” Lionel Colin’s design approaches the fighting at Kuneitra on a grand scale, from the time the French approach Kuneitra in the early morning to the town’s fall that evening. My scenario takes place much later in the day, when the remnants of the rifle companies have fallen back and coalesced around Orr’s headquarters. The different time periods involved partly explain the divergent designs. Board layouts differ too, radically so. Lionel takes advantage of three innovative “arid” boards included with LFT No. 15 to represent the entire town and its outskirts. The composition of each OB, while similar, differs enough to matter. In some cases differences can be attributed to how source material is interpreted. 

For instance, the British in FT284 have a couple of Universal Carriers (British Vehicle Note 64) at their disposal. Although carriers were almost certainly present, I excluded them. Several carriers had been forward with a company of Fusiliers and two armoured cars at a screening position about six kilometres south of Sassa until forced to withdraw about 0230 the previous morning, under pressure from Lecoulteaux’s advance guard. However, with ammunition in short supply, I would expect most if not all carriers to have been stripped of their weapons and ammunition well before the actions portrayed by my scenario took place. 

Lionel also includes, as I initially did, a Marmon-Herrington variant with a 20mm Italian Breda mounted in the turret (British Vehicle Note 48).

Marmon-Herrington II Middle East variant with 20mm Breda

I believe this is an error, albeit one repeated in several sources. The Dragoons did not serve in Eritrea whereas the Fusiliers did. Nor were 1st Dragoons deployed to the Western Desert until December 1941, which calls into question when they had contact with Italian forces and how they came to have a Breda. Indeed, unless I’m mistaken, Op Exporter was the first time the Dragoons saw action in World War II. Further research led me to conclude that the fanciful Marmon-Herrington IIv had to go, to be replaced with a fiddly Cannone-mitragliera da 20/65 (Italian Ordnance Note 17). 

Cannone-mitragliera da 20/65

On balance it’s a fair trade. What the Breda loses in mobility, it gains in camouflage, in its ability to set up hidden and ambush its prey. I have also taken the liberty of liberating the aforementioned “dug-in” cars, allowing them the freedom to do what armoured cavalry does best: harrass the enemy. So where FT284 has two carriers and a Breda-armed car, “Jackals” has two Marmon-Herrington cars—the “Monkey Harry’s” alluded to earlier—and a Breda.

Marmon-Herrington II ME in Aleppo 27 July 1941

There are several Second Line squads in my British OB. These represent rear-echelon elements of the Fusilier battalion: signallers, supply, maintenance, and so forth. The British OB on Lionel’s card has a French medium machine gun (MMG) in British tan. (I don’t recall seeing an “official” counter for this, but there is one in VASL.) The MMG is in recognition of a French Hotchkiss acquired by the Fusiliers earlier in the campaign. Trigger Warning: my scenario has an entire Scenario Special Rule (SSR) devoted to this MMG and its courageous operator, Corporal Henry Cotton, DCM. 

Captured Hotchkiss Mle 1914 machine gun in Cyrenica

Apart from the presence on my card of some squads that are subject to cowering (A7.9), the British Infantry are roughly in line with those on Lionel’s. Similarly, a modest collection of light machine guns (LMG), anti-tank rifles (ATR), and light mortars (MTR) grace both cards. In a departure from Lionel’s design, the two 51mm MTR in mine may set up on rooftops, where they can avoid the need to use Spotted Fire (C9.31). The advantage this affords the defender becomes clear when one examines the eclectic armour the Vichy bring to this soirée.

Renault renaissance

“The squat little monsters were slow, incapable of more than twelve miles an hour at the maximum..” wrote a former British subaltern. “Colonel Lecoulteaux was using his tanks like a battering ram.” The rams in question were Renaults, R35 medium tanks that were all but impenetrable to British fire. About 45 of these armoured fighting vehicles (AFV) formed the backbone of Lecoulteaux’s 7e Régiment de chasseurs d’Afrique (7th RCA), and the scenario reflects this. The current design allots the French seven. Used well, these AFV can make the task of defending Kuneitra seem almost hopeless. Did I forget to mention that the British have Molotov Cocktails (A22.6) to play with?

Renault R35 of 63e BCC in Syria circa 1940

The French OB also features Great-War era Renault. Fifty-four FT-17 were in the Levant, with as many as twelve spotted in Kuneitra on 16 June. This latter group was likely from Damascus, where one of four independent tank companies (compagnie autonome des chars du Levant, or CACL) were based. 

Renault FT-17 in Damascus

Each CACL was authorized six FT-17C, three FT-17M, and one FT-17BS. Armed with a repurposed fortress gun, one Renault in each company was a de facto assault gun. The Main Armament (MA) of the FT-17 75BS (French Vehicle Note 1) is a short-barrelled 75mm Blockhaus Schneider howitzer. It is the most powerful weapon in this contest!

Renault FT-17 75BS in the Levant

Armoured cars provided fire support for the Renault tanks. A recent account of the battle claims that “Panhard 35 TOE” accompanied the R-35. This is confusing. As far as I know, the AMD 35, or Panhard 178 (French Vehicle Note 18), was confined to Metropolitan France. That said, the designation “TOE” (Territoire d’Opérations Extérieures) specifically refers to vehicles designed for use in France’s colonies and territories. So I reasoned that the author was actually referring to the Automitrailleuse de Découverte (AMD) 20 cv TOE  (French Vehicle Note 16), better known as the Panhard 165/175 TOE. According to the vehicle note, a squadron’s worth, perhaps as many as 15 Panhards, were issued to the 6e Régiment de chasseurs d’Afrique (6th RCA) in the Lebanon. I’ve since removed the AMD 20, because I’ve found no trace of it in contemporary accounts of combat in Syria. If you know of a reliable account, do let me know.

On the other hand, it’s possible that the 7th RCA had a handful of Laffly S15 TOE on strength. Based on the Laffly S15T 6x6 prime mover (French Vehicle Note 33), this curious “scout car” was armed with a 7.5mm Riebel machine gun in a small domed turret. Although the majority of the 27 cars produced by Laffly were shipped to France’s North African colonies, period photographs suggest that some served with the Armée du Levant. The Laffly S15 TOE had better off-road capability than a truck and could transport the equivalent of a half-squad (HS) along with its inherent crew. Regrettably, ASL doesn’t have a counter for this armoured oddity.

Laffly S15 TOE undergoing field trials in France

In the 1930s, Laffly rebuilt 98 long-range reconnaisance cars. They were designated Automitrailleuse de Découverte (AMD) 50 (French Vehicle Note 17). Laffly replaced the chassis of the White armoured car, but retained the body of this Great-War era vehicle. The bulk of these conversions ended up in French North Africa, as did all subsequent White-Laffly AMD 80 rebuilds. In May 1940, about a dozen White-Laffly AMD 50 were operational in the Lebanon. However, the most numerous armoured cars in the Levant—perhaps as many as 57—were unmodified AMD White TBC. (The latter acronym was used to distinguish between a “TAB” chassis, built in the USA, and the “TBC” chassis built under licence by Renault.) The AMD White were divided among four squadrons, split evenly between the 6th and 7th RCA.

The Chapter H note for the Laffly AMD 50 recommends using an AMD 50 counter, with a (printed) MP allotment of 16 (instead of 20) to represent the obsolete White. I’d probably go a step further and treat the MP of the older vehicle as red in order to emphasis its obsolescence, and hence, its unreliability. Not keen to add more SSR verbiage to the card, I haven’t distinguished between old and new. Nor did Lionel. Players will have their hands full trying to get the most mileage out of the vehicle’s weapons, one of which always seems to face the wrong way!

AMD White knocked out on the road to Damascus, June 1941

Another candidate for the armoured cars present at Kuneitra was a local field modification of roughly thirty 4x2 Dodge trucks. The vehicles sported 12mm armour plates that protected a 37mm mle 16 TR (French Ordnance Note 8) gun and its crew, while an armoured visor provided a modicum of protection for the driver. Designated “Automitrailleuse or AM Dodge” (French Vehicle Note 15) this partially-armoured truck remained vulnerable to small arms fire. The design proved effective enough, however, that captured vehicles were later put to use by Free French units in North Africa. While in the Levant, they apparently operated in platoons of five primarily, though not necessarily exclusively, with the 6th RCA. I thought this oddball too good to pass up and added it to the card. So did Lionel. Players will need to do their homework; the vehicle notes for this one are not as straightforward as the rest.

AM Dodge variants in the Levant

Following the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878), more than half a million Muslim Circassians were absorbed into the Ottoman Empire. Some of these exiles settled in the Golan Heights. A Caucasian warrior people, Circassians were famed for their blood-curdling battle cry that some likened to the cries of jackals, hence the title of the scenario. 

When Lecoulteaux approached Kuneitra, he used his armour to blast an opening in the British lines either side of the main road. Dismounted Circassians followed the R-35, as their brethren on the flanks, aided by their familiarity with the town, deftly infiltrated Fusilier positions. 

The Circassians were a mix of horse-mounted and motorized cavalry. I created an elaborate SSR for them and whittled it down after successive tests. From the start, Circassians were represented by Second Line Free French units. This, I contend, is a reflection of their auxiliary status and an independent streak. What they lose in range—a lack of (fire) discipline, if you will—they gain in having a higher broken Morale Level. An Experience Level Rating (ELR) of 5 underlines their steadfastness under fire and minimizes the chances of Replacement (A19.13). I know, I know. I could have kept the underscored Morale Factor part of the SSR. But during play test this inevitably led to a “rules dive” whenever a unit exceeded its ELR—then 3. Lastly, in recognition of their familiarity with Kuneitra, plus their lengendary esprit de corps, Circassians are Stealthy (A11.17). Those three characteristics: better Rally capability, high ELR, and Stealth make these cavalrymen spéciale.

Motorized Circassian cavalry

Town crier

That’s just as well. Vichy success relies on the Circassians wresting control of every stone building in six turns. Squat metal monsters may well be unstoppable much of the time. But they cannot take Kuneitra on their own. Besides, even R35 can fall prey to British mortars, not to mention molotov cocktails. Close combat will often decide the outcome and tanks are at a marked disadvantage in such situations. Hear that cry? The boys are back in town!

Will the British adopt a strict “Alamo” defence? Or will they spread out and make the French fight for multiple strongpoints? Will the French mass their forces in a powerful frontal thrust? Or will they squeeze the defenders from three sides? If so, how will the French divide their forces? And just how aggressive will they be with their armour? Will the tanks tempt fate and risk an early defeat in order to win? Find out when the pack is released. Or sign up to playtest today! 

Can’t wait? 

Print the freeplay card below and get crackin’ now! 

Stay tuned for another freebie in June!

For other posts in this series, check out the Close Combat page here!


1. As of June 2024, ASL Action Pack 9 remains available in KitShop.

FREEPLAY CC06 Day of the Jackals - Syria - June 1941