Monday, April 05, 2010

My own influences...

Both Matt and Fraxinus have been having a bout of nostalgia on their blogs; looking at their early influences on their interest in wargaming.
Many of our influences are the same, not surprisingly (Fraxinus and I lived very close together when we were young), but some are different. So now its time to drag a few relics out of my collection and bung them under the scanner!

My main influence was my father who fought in the Second World War in North Africa. This meant that the very first proper wargames I played against other opponents were Western Desert ones. My main opponents were my classmates: Bean kid, Cess-Pitts and Jimbo (we all had nicknames at my school except John Palmer who was too boring to have one-I was "The General"). I wrote the rules for this and, typically, revolving as they did around AFVs, they were fixated on relative armour thickness. Very good news for me if you were the Afrika Korps and could field loads of Tigers and Panthers against Bean-kid and Cess' Lee/Grants and Shermans! Oddly, thanks to Airfix I still think of the name of that tank as the Lee/Grant rather than identifying each version with its individual name! My main source of information on WW2 was the Purnell History of the Second World War; an immense part-work (and still the best part-work ever issued) which seemed to go on for nearly as long as the real war! I still have every copy in their binders and nearly all of the one-off specials which had great artwork by John Batchelor.

Later I learnt more about my grandfather (who I can barely remember other than the fact that he wore incredibly thick brown suits even in the middle of summer) who started in WW1 in the KRRC and then transferred to the RFC. Even later I found out that my Uncle Keith (who died a few years ago but not without leaving me some WW1 German pickelhauben and cases and cases of classed growth claret) was in the Airborne Division at Arnhem but was so shell shocked he spent over a year in hospital afterwards. He never spoke about it until about two months before he died when he came out with a whole load of funny stories; including the fact that the airborne troops were used as human ballast when the glider pilots were being trained, as they were quicker to load than sandbags. He said he had to endure about twenty crash landings as a result!

I actually came to Airfix 20mm figures rather late, as my initial interest in Airfix had been in aircraft and battleships. Certainly, the first ones I acquired were the Napoleonic ones at the time of the film Waterloo. I loved everything about this film and my father bought me the programme (you used to get illustrated programmes for big films in those days). Years later, I picked up a CD of the (memorable) music by Nino Rota in a shop in Rome. I can't say that I have ever seen it anywhere else.

I bought hundreds (maybe thousands) of those cream coloured Airfix Napoleonic figures and my two main sources were Gamleys, the toy shop in Staines, and Johnson & Clarke a large and independent department store in Staines. If you have ever seen Grace Brothers in the old TV series Are you Being Served? then you will get a feeling for what it was like! Bean-kid was an excellent modeller and when the Airfix Waterloo Farmhouse came out he built a model of Hougoumont using plans in Military Modelling magazine. He then added a model of La Haye Sainte and we would have huge two or three day re-enactments of Waterloo in our dining room using two big boards which gave us a 7'x6'8" playing area.

We never painted any of the figures though! Neither did we mount them on stands so if you bumped into the table everyone fell over! At first all our rules came from Terence Wise's book Introduction to Battlegaming but later we progressed to Charles Grant's Napoleonic Wargaming with its 48 man battalions.

I also picked up a great book which I still refer to today: The Armies at Waterloo by Ugo Pericoli, who was the costume designer for the film and contains all his sketches and paintings of uniforms he did for the movie. This was backed up by my first proper uniform book; Rene North's Regiments at Waterloo which helped a great deal as I did paint the large 54mm Airfix Napoleonic kits. I still remember the pain of cutting out all those straps on thin plasticard.

Apart from these social wargaming efforts much of my time was spent on solo wargaming (especially when I was younger), much of it more along the lines of HG Wells' Little Wars than anything scientific. This was especially true of the garden escapades which also involved digging little trenches for my WW1 figures. I had two main periods. Ancients, using the Airfix Romans and Ancient Britons, and World War 2 in the Pacific. The latter was always always fought outside as the Airfix Marines crossed our pond to assault the dug-in Japanese on the rockery. These games could last weeks over the summer holidays, as the tide of battle went to and fro and extra boxes were bought as reinforcements. My mother was still digging up these long lost soldiers, who still think the war is on, nearly forty years later. So for me the most evocative Airfix box is definitely the US Marines one!

I read a review of the new series The Pacific a couple of days ago which said "this conflict has been largely ignored by film makers". Yes, probably if you are a junior 25 year old journalist but for me my main memories of WW2 films are from the many WW2 Pacific films I saw on TV. Guadalcanal, The Sands of Iwo Jima, From the Halls of Montezuma and all those John Wayne ones where he suffers a heroic death at the end. He never died in his Westerns but always did in his war films! I never liked those set in Europe as they always used American tanks for the German ones whereas there was no Japanese armour to get wrong in the Pacific set ones!

The interest in Rome which, unlike WW2, persists to this day was down to the combined possession of my first box of Airfix Romans and my favourite Ladybird book: Julius Caesar and Roman Britain. Watching films like Spartacus and the Fall of the Roman Empire only encouraged me even more to pitch my grey Romans against my reddish-brown coloured Britons.

The last key book for me was Preben Kannik's Military Uniforms in Colour which, like many of my books from those days, is very well loved! It was the pictures in this that got me keen on my last great wargaming period of the Seventies: the American Civil War. Always a popular Airfix period because of the availability of infantry, artillery and, via the US Cavalry, mounted figures.

This early golden age finished on December 31st 1975. I went to a New Years Eve party at the parents of one of my mother's friends. Most of the people there were my mother's age but there were two sisters who were 15 and 17 years old. They had that short, late Seventies, hair and very tight dresses. We all got quite drunk on home made wine and disappeared outside into the garden where they taught me how to French kiss (firstly by demonstrating on each other!). Next day I had a wargame with the guys from school but I didn't really get into it as, firstly, I had a hangover andn secondlyn Airfix tanks had suddenly lost their primacy in my most wanted list.

Oddly, when I started university in September 1979 I met a girl, C, who I had originally met at interview a year before (I took a year off between school and college) and she got me back into painting figures and tanks again through playing Dungeons and Dragons. We only went along to the Oxford University Dungeons and Dragons Club for a term; mainly because all the other players were scientists (we both did law) and kept including scientific and maths puzzles in the games which we didn't understand! Catherine, a dazzling red-head (the first in a long line at college!), lasted another two terms (although there was some overlap with another one!) before going off with someone who ended up being a top wine writer. I was very pleased to hear that he was later sent down for something dodgy involving his college cellars, we believe. Heh, heh! In college I found out that one of my best friends was also a wargamer but he painted those little blocks of 5mm figures (no individual ones at this point) and I couldn't see the point so I carried on painting WW2 tanks (there was an excellent model shop in Oxford) from Italeri and Esci. They never saw service in a proper wargame but my son plays with them now.

I didn't read WW2 comics when I was young; I got TV21 and Look & Learn which contained the Trigan Empire strip, largely illustrated by the great Don Lawrence. The Trigan Empire would make for a great range of figures! I particularly liked the hover tanks that featured in it and used to build them out of Lego for battles on my carpet. I am now collecting the beautiful books of reprints produced in the Netherlands at enormous expense. I think some of my strange interest (even though I should know beter) in Warhammer 40K comes from my love of the Trigan Empire.

Well the nostalgia continues as I try to get to grips with my Westland Whirlwind!


  1. wow...nostalgia City LH...until the oxford bit we must have been twins (give or take 5 yrs)! I forgot to mention the Purnell series..still have those dad collected them & I poached them for reference, The Armies at Waterloo by Ugo Pericoli...that's the book I only have the colour plates left inspired all my waterloo period until I got hold of some Blandfords (WH Smiths sales in the 70's were very fruitfull!)Wise's book (withdrawn from Minehead library) was picked up on hols and were my first rules. WW2 & ACW used the Airfix guides rules. I built the Waterloo Farmhouse & based it. Wargames consisted of a short lived wargames society at mayfield school hersham (Sham 69 fame!)& battles V 'Farmer' from Halliford school...some people attended Halliford from deepest darkest Staines I had to cross the river via the WW2 'Bailey Bridge' Vaguely remember Johnson & Clarkes we only had 'Beales' in Walton & they didn't do Airfix but we had 2 toy shops. In the hot summer of 1976 1/32nd Aussies & Japs fought a battle around the goldfish pond at our summer holiday home near street Somerset looking forward to seeing Pacific (no John Wayne Hurrah!)

    Red heads ....dangerous very very dangerous!!

    Anyway you've got me going back in my time machine now & get on with that Whirlwind! Must attempt the first coat of paint now...eek!

  2. Meant to say ...might have to 'grovel' a copy of the waterloo soundtrack...I recently hummed & whistled the Imperial Guards advance 'tune' around Boulognes Battlements!!

  3. Apart from being 9 in 1975 the story is much the same-except for the kissing lessons! I obviously had a deprived adolescence!

  4. Matt - only LH could meet a couple of kissing sisters at such an impressionable age....! :o)

    I have to say that your story is always identical to mine!! I used to read "World of Wonder" ( rather than L&L as I wasn't really into Dan Dare...

    For two years between 1972'ish and 1974'ish I read Purnells history of WWII every lunchtime at school... what a geek I must have been (and probably still am!)

    Saw Waterloo three or four times (..."whose the bloke with the hooky nose?") the week it came out - never ever applied paint to my Aifix Napoleonics, always painted my Lee/Grant tanks (yep - I always refer to them that way as well) only ever painted rifles and faces on my Eighth Army and Afrika Korps.. happy days...