By Rob Morgan
I wrote a piece for Lone Warrior lately, describing my earliest attempts at wargaming, that was back in the 1960s (the early 1960s at that!) I developed a kingdom called Ruritania, after the well-known book ( and film) “The Prisoner of Zenda” by Anthony Hope. Of course, somewhere deep in every wargamer’s heart there lies a Ruritania, where otherwise impossible or implausible skirmishes, battles or campaigns take place between armies (or fleets) which would otherwise not exist, or ever encounter each other. Ruritania’s an elusive island in the Mediterranean, or a state strung out along a great river like the Danube, beset by predatory neighbours and all too often internal strife.
Mostly, in those days, in my Ruritanian forces there were regiments of Airfix 20mm Foot Guards and ACW artillery, but within a matter of months I discovered … “The Sea! The Sea!”
Well, Xenophon’s classic excitement was little indeed compared to mine when I discovered that there were serious model ships around. My Ruritanian Admiralty acquired at a very reasonable two shillings, a waterline Airfix Napoleonic frigate, HMS Shannon, but she wasn’t all that useful. I couldn’t afford on my meagre pocket money, an opponent for her, and when a kindly uncle bought me HMS Victory in the same Airfix range and at the same price, I couldn’t believe the difference in scales! No, the Shannon was hampered by the fact that although Ruritania had a seaport, just one, she was strung out along a river not dissimilar to the Amazon, very long with just a few decent river ports.
However, the frigate (a beautiful model, if you can recall it) was hastily re-named RRNS Zenda for service as the king’s entire fleet, and gallantly protected the fishing fleets. Then, one dismal winter, having been given Don Featherstone’s brilliant “Naval Wargames” as a Christmas present, I decided that the book’s American Civil war rules along with the simple carved balsa river boats were for me. Of course, I couldn’t carve balsa properly (who can?) and so I looked around for alternatives for the king’s navy.
Plasticard was rare and expensive then, even in specialist model shops, but I drew the outline of several decent sized ironclad rams and monitors, using Don’s dimensions, and on top of the monitors cemented a small funnel, one or two ships boats, from slivers of card, and a turret made from the inverted road-wheel of a 1/72nd scale Airfix Sherman tank. It worked. The broadside rams were much harder to work out, but plastic electrical housing strips a couple of inches long with holes drilled or burned in to take cocktail strip funnels worked nicely. The Ruritanian admirals, it seems, had bought a job lot of five monitors and a couple of ex-Confederate rams from this bloke in New York, no questions asked. This was the late 1860s and King Rudolph was a bit worried about the sabre -wielding Prussians, a bad bunch, and about the conflicts in Italy and Denmark, not to mention the worst neighbours from hell, the Austrians — who had some hefty warships.
Now the monitors, four single-turret jobs and one double-turreted flagship were all named after great literary figures, King Rudolph enjoyed the works of Shakespeare and was anxious to develop a treaty with Great Britain, which had lots and lots of ships! So, we had the RRNS Hamlet, Coriolanus, Guildenstern, Falstaff and so on. They served very well. From tiny ship’s lifeboats I made some dozens of torpedo boats, and along with fire rafts and mines they provided a formidable river defence fleet.
The opposition was often the intrusive Imperial Russians, who, of course, in reality after 1868 or so, owned about a dozen single-turret monitors of the Passaic type, and lots of torpedo boats too. So Ruritania had her hands full. Mind you, the monitor v monitor fights were magnificent affairs. We had a rebellion once in which fleets – well, smallish squadrons — of monitors faced up to each other, with ample treachery thrown in. The rams all too frequently in these river wars tipped the balance nicely. We had an early air force too – well, a couple of balloons, made from tiny plastic beads on long pins, which either acted as observation posts along the big river, or were bomb-carriers like the ones the Austrians used against Venice a decade earlier. Once the gallant troopers of the “Rupert of Hentzau” Regiment sallied forth aboard ten balloons and captured a Russian monitor grounded on a sandbank — no a/a guns then! I also acquired, or rather His Majesty’s navy acquired, a mini submarine of the new fangled sort of warship type being built, usually secretly, around the naval dockyards of Europe. Nothing more than a sliver of plastic yet its value simply “in-being” was immense. The specially adapted torpedo launches were often decoys towing nothing more than a half-submerged barrel.
It seemed as though Ruritania’s gallant little navy would remain fixed eternally in the late 1800s repelling all enemies. If it hadn’t been for that unfortunate outbreak of several small and utterly unpleasant wars in the Balkans, and the big one kicking off when someone shot Great Uncle Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Rudolph II, or was it III, had to retire to stay with his distant relatives in Yorkshire, and in marched the Prussians with their awful music.