Horn of Africa:
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
We’ve steadily begun re-issuing our Second World War at Sea games in second editions, and having updated them line-by-line is a fine excuse to look at them again in Daily Content.
Horn of Africa is based on the Red Sea campaign of 1941 – this is a thing that actually happened. The Italian Red Sea Flotilla had a small, slow colonial cruiser (sometimes described as a “sloop”), seven destroyers, eight submarines, five MAS boats and a small collection of other minor warships. Their task would be to seal the lower Red Sea in case of war with Britain or France, thereby rendering the Suez Canal useless. Things didn’t work out quite as planned.
Horn of Africa is the smallest game in the series, and as such I’ve always had a special fondness for it. I’ve always thought that small games present a much greater challenge for the designer than big ones: you can’t fix an issue by just adding more stuff, but have to work within set boundaries to craft an interesting play experience with good historical content.
The Red Sea campaign is a small canvas with which to work, and also a pretty obscure naval campaign – something else with which I really like to work. I get to show off knowledge of little-known events that have never been covered by other wargames (usually because not a lot of people were burning for a game on the topic). The ships of the Red Sea Flotilla, the small air forces that supported them, and the British naval and air forces that opposed them, all fit easily in the half-sized sheet of playing pieces budgeted for the game.
The map isn’t very large, just covering the Red Sea of Gulf of Aden, from the southern exit of the Suez Canal on down to the eponymous Horn of Africa (a million words of Daily Content and I believe that’s the first time I’ve ever used “eponymous”). Since the Red Sea is really narrow, the playable area is even smaller than the surface area suggests. That means it’s going to be hard to evade contact.
The core of the game, like any Avalanche Press product, is its scenario set. We always want players to get a lot of play out of their game, and many choices in how to play it. There are 25 scenarios in Horn of Africa: 15 operational scenarios, which take place on the operational map, and ten more battle scenarios taking place only on the Tactical Map (in the operational scenarios, this is where play moves to resolve battles). That’s a lot of game for a game of this size.
All 25 scenarios return for the second edition: it’s a solid set, and I didn’t feel the need to add, subtract or replace any of them. They’ve been re-edited to conform with the Second Edition series rules, but their essence is unchanged. The noticeable difference in the game-specific materials (that is, other than the totally re-vamped series rules with their full-color play aids) is that the airbase cards have been replaced with full-color models. Those aren’t really needed, but they make the game more fun to play.
Of those 25 scenarios, 11 are based on the actual events of the Red Sea campaign. The others fall into two categories: a few hypotheticals from the 1935-36 Abyssinian Crisis, which did not explode into open war but easily could have done so with the rest based on the proposition that Italy actually prepared for war before declaring it.
Despite holding a strategic position at Massawa that could dominate the Red Sea – and thus Britain’s vital link to India and Australia – the Italians did little to make ready for the conflict with Britain. A desperate final shipment brought tanks and other weaponry, but they had not built up stockpile of fuel and ammunition, fortified Massawa and stationed a reliable garrison there, or brought in the ships and aircraft needed for the mission. The destroyers of the Red Sea Flotilla were all older vessels; no modern cruisers or other warships were provided. With no other port anywhere close to Massawa, the British would have a nearly-impossible task in capturing it, leaving the Red Sea closed for years.
That, of course, did not happen. But it can in the game.
The pieces needed for the Red Sea Flotilla and its British opponent, the Red Sea Force, didn’t take up all of those available. So there are some extras: commerce-raiding cruisers (there’s one over there on the right) and a couple of extra destroyers for the Italians, and some heavier escorts for the British to counter them. That allows some battleship action; knowing that this game would likely be purchased by first-time Second World War at Sea players (though it’s not intended as an introductory game), I wanted the game to include some big guns.
Once you have that many surface ships in play, contact (and therefore battle) is almost assured. Not only is the Red Sea long and narrow, it enters the Gulf of Aden through an even skinner chokepoint, the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb, the “Gate of Grief” in Arabic. And both sides will have to pass through the gate to reach their objectives, sometimes both in the same scenario.
Air power isn’t much of a factor in Horn of Africa; the bulk of Italian air power in their East African Empire was made up of the Caproni Ca.133 light bomber, known as the Caprona or She-Goat. The She-Goat was an excellent counter-insurgency plane, and had given good service dropping chemical weapons on Ethiopian troops (and civilians) who had no means of fighting back. Against modern fighter planes, the Caprona was just another dish of Spezzatino.
The British did not deploy much more air power, except when their aircraft carriers transited the Red Sea and amused themselves with air strikes. There are a handful of land-based planes flying out of Aden to trouble the Italians, but mostly this is a campaign fought by surface ships and sometimes submarines.
There’s a lot of game inside this small package, which fits nicely on a small table. It’s a game you’ll play, and one you probably already know how to play. You need this game.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.