Why South African Highlanders?
This little project is an example of how sometimes, everything doesn't exactly fall perfectly into place, so you have to settle for something pretty neat, but not 100% perfect.
It all started when we had more or less chosen Gazala as the probable starting point of our ventures into the North Africa deserts. We already had several platoons either painted or planned out, and started pouring over the Orders of Battle for Gazala 1942. We had French legionnaires, we had Indians, we had Brittish motorized infantry, all of them partaking in the battle. But there were also two South African infantry divisions, forming the main frontline (the one that Rommel avoided) together with the 50th Northumbrian infantry division. While we could just use our British infantry to represent them, was there anything more interesting we could do with these formations crossing the continent to fight?
Somehow, one name stuck out of the list of regiments on that list - the Cape Town Highlanders. The mere idea of something so quintessentially Scottish as highlanders, but from the other side of the world? Now that's something unusual.
Cape Town Highlander History
Once I started reading up on them, they kind of grew on me. The regiment, formed mainly by South Africans with Scottish ancestry in 1885, saw action in many of the operations that we've looked into around the Mediterranean: from El Alamein to Monte Cassino and, of course, Gazala. While not in the thick of the fight during the initial and middle phase of the battle, the South African divisions fought a running defensive fight against Rommel's DAK after the writing was on the wall and the Allied forces around Tobruk were hastily ordered to pull back to the border to Egypt.
Such a retreat could make for some interesting games. They also didn't have that much of their own vehicles and other support options, relying more on British tank support, which would give me an excuse for not doubling our tank investments for the desert.
A final bonus is that I've never seen anyone making these as a wargaming force. I tried to google them, and found nothing remotely connected to wargaming.
Drafting the Platoon
As a tabletop wargamer, the next step is maybe one of those that tend to eat up way too much of my time, but can also be a lot of fun: finding the actual miniatures.
The tricky part was to even decide what they were going to represent. I simply could not find any pictures online of the Cape Town Highlanders in battle in North Africa. On one hand, I saw comments that no Highlanders fought in kilt after 1940, and there are plenty of pictures of say, Gordon and Cameron's highlanders that supports that:
The look above could easily be accomplished by using Perry's plastic Desert Rats, and the metal head swaps they have available. I also found pictures of the Cape Town Highlanders in Italy, in similar uniforms, either with typical highlander headgear or in helmets.
On the other hand, all the pictures I could find of the Cape Town Highlanders related to Africa had them in shirts, tropical helmets, kilts and kilt covers, which is just a very unique look:
Snazzy indeed! And I also found pictures that could be highlanders in kilt in North Africa, though online research is always sketchy as you can't trust the date or even the image descriptions:
But basically we have two options here: making quite similar to our other planned platoons, or potentially fudging things a bit to make a more interesting tabletop experience. I like historical accuracy, but I'm also prone to go with the Rule of Cool now and then, so why not dive in and make these Highlanders something unusual?
Sourcing the Miniatures
I don't think I'm alone in spending more time and effort in pouring over miniatures online than actually playing games. Searching for new available options, comparing them and finding companies you've never heard of before - it's really like digging for hidden treasure.
Finding suitable miniatures for our potentially slightly romanticized Highlanders turned out harder than expected! There are quite a few options out there for WWI or earlier conflicts, as well as non-kilt Highlanders suitable for 1944-45, but that's pretty much the only things we could find at first. That is, until a clubmate stumbled over an expired kickstarter project.
I had never heard of the company, Wargamers' Homestead LLC, before. But they turned out to be friendly enough and after some e-mailing we had ordered a full platoon, some a support weapons, and an extra section of riflemen.
Now, these are clearly depicting Highlanders in France 1940, so they are not perfect for this project. First of all, they have gasmask bags on their chests, something that I haven't seen that much of in North Africa in 1942. They also come with the Brodie helmet, where in the few pictures I have of the Cape Town Highlanders they sport the tropical helmets.
My initial plan was to make two conversions on these: to make a pocket flap on the front to make the kilt cover more obvious, and to cut off the Brodie helmets and replace them with tropical ones. But once I got the actual miniatures in my hands, I could tell two things:
1) it would be much harder than I expected to remove the helmets, and
2) if I were to paint up all these guys for September, I got to get a move on rather than spending time on kilt conversions.
The miniatures themselves looks pretty nice - far from the most detailed I've seen, but that can be a very good thing when you want to paint a force quickly. For miniatures destined for the tabletop rather than the display cabinet, clearly defined areas means they are easier to paint, and will usually look good at an arm's length or more.
First of all I glued all men on flat-headed nails and primed them with brown paint from a Tamiya spray can. Then I put down a very rough test painting scheme on them, to see how it would look, with the clubmates helpful support over Facebook. This is a good idea when you start out a new army, as you want to find out if you dislike the colour scheme before you've painstakingly have applied several colours on dozens of minis.
Test 1: Vallejo's British Tanker Highlight for the tan on shirt and kilt cover, desert yellow helmet, and a rather green khaki for webbing and socks.
This just didn't feel right. The crowds booed. Cats wept. Let's try it again.
Test 2: replaced the greenish khaki on the socks with Deck Tan. Added a splotch of red for contrast. Filled in the black on the rifle.
Much better balance IMHO, and I like the green khaki much more now when it doesn't take over quite as much.
Test 3: the big kilt cover line-up of 2018. In this blind test, kilt #3 from the left (Vallejo Light Mud) won out over the other contestants.
So, with two main issues settled - models and paint scheme, it's now down to the Mother of All Batches (64 men just for the rifles and LMGs!), as I get cracking on painting up the platoon plus support!