Archive for the ‘ Personal ’ Category

Operation Goodwood: a Scottish Megagame

One of the most stressful things I have ever done is spend 6 hours as second in command of a 20-person allied command structure with each 8 in-game hours as a strict 30 real minute turn.

It was also amazing. Absolutely, mind-bogglingly amazing.

I was at the 2nd Scottish Megagame. A megagame is a massive (40+ players), immersive, free-form version of a board game. There has been an explosion of interest in megagames after Shut Up And Sit Down filmed themselves playing Watch the Skies late last year. Clubs have sprung up across Britain and the original London megagame club recently ran a 300-player version of Watch the Skies.

The game we played was Operation Goodwood, a simulation of a WW2 battle in which British armour attacked near Caen, in an attempt to destroy German armour, capture the Bourguébus Ridge and ideally break out of Normandy completely. It was hosted at the fantastic facilities of Common Ground Games in Stirling, a gaming shop and huge playing space complete with cafe.

Three of us bought tickets, expecting to be placed in charge of a division. Instead we found ourselves placed in charge of the entire 20-person allied team!

We quickly swotted up on the historical battle, watching the British Army war study of the battle. The rules were very clear not to make plans before the day itself, so we discussed the broad possibilities and challenges but avoided coming up with anything.

On the day itself, the planning phase started without much fanfare, and confusion reigned. Nelson, our gallant commander, brought some order to the situation by drawing a large green arrow on his map, indicating that the British armour should all charge to the west of a tall railway embankment running down the middle of the map, while the Canadian infantry took Caen and the large British 3rd infantry division spread out across our large Eastern flank.

This was because in the real battle, the British armoured divisions advanced unsupported into the middle of villages that were thick with anti-tank weapons, and were shot to pieces. Instead, Nelson wanted to send the bulk of our force to one flank, get onto the ridge, and roll up the German defences from one side.

In the event, the first day went badly off-plan. With about ten minutes of the 2 hour planning session left, Nelson was informed that his plan was at high risk of causing traffic congestion. Together with the commander of the entire armoured corps, Douglas, he quickly devised a new plan where the Guards Armoured would advance east of the embankment, while the 7th Armoured advanced to the west.

Air HQ were caught by surprise by the deadline, and had ordered a mass bombing, but more diffuse than intended, and had failed to issue any recon or air support orders for the morning turn.

The one thing that went right on the first morning was the Canadian assault. They captured most of Caen and were looking good. Unfortunately, all of the armour found itself caught in traffic jams and did little more than cross the Odone. The 3rd infantry had issued a prepare rather than an attack order, which was not our intention. Apparently they told me about this – I have no memory of it, but they’re probably right.

It’s hard to convey the stress and the amount of information you have to process while playing the game. All sorts of things were being forgotten, missed, or miscommunicated. This was not helped by a general shortage of intelligence officers, including none in HQ at all. In retrospect we should have promoted someone, but at the time we didn’t want to take people away from the friends they had come with. I took on the intel role alongside my COO duties, while Nelson stepped into quite a bit of operations-level work.

On the second day, some things improved. The Canadians were largely bogged down in Caen, but the 3rd Infantry managed to engage the enemy, albeit far farther back than we had originally hoped. The 7th Armoured, West of the embankment, was able to attack South, engaging a unit of self-propelled guns, and the other two armoured divisions began to fight their way forward. Our air support became increasingly well-organised, and cooperation between units improved.

At this point we thought the battle was going very badly for us, as we had barely advanced at all. We would late discover that the Germans had placed everything they had in a shallow but extremely dense defence.

On the third day, things got a bit weird.

There was a big success when the 11th Armoured, in a brilliant change to the original plan by their corps commander, broke out to the East, with 3rd Infantry plugging the gap behind them. This attack was eventually halted by fresh panzers.

There was another, as the Guards Armoured broke through East of the Embankment.

There was yet another, as the 7th Armoured and the RAF destroyed massive amounts of enemy armour just South of Caen.

But then… there was Caen… the Canadians, heros of the battle so far, were caught off guard by an SS panzer division appearing in Caen – on the Allied side of the river! At that point, having no idea how deep our armoured divisions had punched, seeing a surprise panzer division on our flank, I was absolutely convinced we had lost the game badly.

The Canadians counterattacked brilliantly, destroying 4 squadrons of Panzers in intense street fighting and bizarrely advancing three brigades onto the ridge, turning the German West flank.. The 7th Armoured, sadly misinformed that they were surrounded, held when they could have attacked. The Guards and the 11th Armoured fell just short of the ridge.

Then, as historically, the battle was halted by torrential rain.

It was only when the German commander spoke that I realised that while it felt like we were taking a beating, it felt that way to the Germans too. Their wide-flanking panzers were in the wrong place to stop our breakthrough either side of the embankment, and unable to take Caen back. But for the rain…


In the final analysis, we did about as well as the British did historically. We destroyed up to twice as many tanks as they did, and probably lost fewer, but just like them we only barely reached the ridge’s edge before the rains began.

Before the game, I thought that it would be about not strategy, but logistics. The most amazing thing was that the game was really about people. People (all of us) made mistakes. People would say they understood an order, but later you would find that they understood it differently to you. Some people preferred to present good news over bad. Some people got bogged down in local fights without heed to the overall plan and had to be urged back onto the attack.

I shouted at people and ordered people about and panicked and punched the air and forgot things and ran headlong about the place trying to work out what the hell was going on. It was exhilarating, brilliant, and utterly exhausting.

I’ll definitely be back for the next one.


Edward Snowden Made Me Sick

“It’s the police, let us in.”

I didn’t expect that when I answered the buzzer. I’ve rarely attracted the attention of the police. They had never been to my door before. At first, I imagined from the plain clothes of the two officers that they must be CID. They were both men with London accents, and both wearing trenchcoats. One was middle aged, and clearly used to getting his way. The other was younger, black with crew cut hair, and surprisingly nervous.

Rather than coming to their point, they asked me several roundabout questions about plans for protests against the G8, which was to be held at the Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland later that year. Slowly, it dawned on me that they were not from CID, that these police officers were interested in my politics. As an activist who was brought up in the Gleneagles area, I had tried to arrange a meeting between protesters and locals.

I asked “Is this about the email I sent to Blackford community council, asking for a public meeting?” The older police officer turned to his colleague and said, theatrically, “Oh, is it that Alistair Davidson?”, as though he had no idea whose door he had come to. They asked me to inform on my friends and fellow protesters. I refused. They left.

I now know that at least one of the protesters I had met, Mark Stone, was a police officer himself.

I’m relating this story now because that was the day that I learned that as a result of peaceful political activity, I was on a government list. Somewhere in the security service’s database there is a file with my name. Five years ago, it would be very small and very boring, the story of a young man who had been to a few protests, sat on a few committees, and occasionally wrote articles.

I’m sickened by what my file might contain today. The sickness came upon me last night, as I spoke to a friend on Facebook. I realised that our conversation, and every similar conversation, was being recorded. How notorious would I have to be for it to be kept forever, just in case? Hard drives are very cheap. I expect not that notorious at all.

Then I started to consider all the emails in my inbox. Love letters. Breakup letters. Chats with my sister about our childhoods and futures. Medical information about my family. I realised that if men in trenchcoats ever come to my door again, they will first rummage through all of that, looking for a lever, something to tempt or threaten me. Maybe, I realised, that has already happened.

I’ve felt ill ever since.

Sort of an album

I’ve released a mixtape, entitled Enough Gravity.

A wee story

My grandfather wasn’t a religious man, but he always said that he would live on through his descendants, who each carry a small piece of him, and through the people he’s talked to, because sharing ideas shares a little of yourself too.

With that in mind, I’d like to share an excerpt from the short life history he wrote a while ago. I think it’s really quite lovely, and describes what has been most important to him for most of his life.

“I never had a lot to do with girls. Took one or two to the cinema and one dancing, Betty Brown from Coatbridge, she was a WREN but our only relationship was as dance partners, she was the only girl that I have ever been able to dance with and we had no other mutual attraction.

Before moving to Cranfield I had been at No. 1 Radio School at Cranwell. I used to take a girl out to the cinema, a Mary Robertson, Met Officer from Edinburgh. Father well heeled, a lawyer with his own Building Society. I looked on her as a friend and a good companion but nothing further. When I arrived at Cranfield, before I met Cherry, Mary wrote to say she would come and see me at Cranfield. I wrote to her right away and said that I considered her a good friend but nothing further would develop. She wrote me a nice reply thanking me for my honesty.

As you can see, the idea of marriage or a permanent relationship was never in my mind until I first saw Cherry, it sounds a bit corny and typical Mills and Boon stuff, but on my first meeting with Cherry I realised this was for real. I remember how badly I behaved, stuttering and stammering and blushing just talking to her.

I had been taken there by a Mac pilot from Dundee. My reaction after the first meeting was she must have a husband or a boyfriend so I stayed away for a week.”


“My reaction on seeing her was the for the first time in my life I had met a girl that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. I felt sure she had an attachment, but as it turned out she was completely unattached. The more I spoke to her the more I fell under her spell. I invited her out to the village cinema and she agreed to go and from then on our mutual feelings indicated that this was for real.

As she was a corporal and I a Flight Lieutenant, we used to go to into the nearest town, Bedford, in mufti, ie non-military clothes. The WAAF Officer, a Miss Hutt, used to keep an eye on the various romances in the unit. She only found out about myself and Cherry when I was leaving in October to be demobbed.”

Glint (a fragment)

A glint of light – as though a lone beam had drilled a crack far above. The rock, the gravel, the sand. A matte wall of rock, reaching over and above and behind, beyond perceptive reality. The light shines on a moment of glistening quartz. Time loses its bearings here, stumbles drunk cross the room to collapse in an exhausted pile, a memorial cairn.

The pool shifts with impossible tides. Eyeless, insectile forms skip on the waves, soon disappearing behind a curtain of solid darkness. Here we stand, holding hands, lost but not alone.

World’s End

(v old – I’m guessing 2006. I’ve learned a lot about writing since I wrote this, but it is autobiographical if metaphorical, and hence retains its importance to me)

One day when I was 12, the world ended. At the time I didn’t realise that it had, but the world was oblivious to the limitations of my immediate perception, and ended all the same. The only thoughts at a time like that are too short to encompass such a happening- they are abbreviated, simplistic, amputated from larger context or any hope of meaning. “What happened? Is she safe? What I can do? ForgodssakewhatcanIdo?”

My first clue to the unfolding micro-apocalypse was the school tannoy’s buzz and a crackly, disembodied voice muttering about an incident, the need to keep calm.

I remember tears; first the girls, but soon myself as well. Confusion. What does “incident” mean anyway? A man known for climbing sheer rock-faces was now too full of fear to vocalise the immediate past. Questions put to adults at lunch; “Is she okay? IS SHE OKAY?”

A world ending isn’t the end of the world. Not the end of all worlds. If you’re clever enough and quick enough you can flee a disintegrating planet, but that day 17 souls were trapped below on the increasingly ruptured surface, and we could not save them.

We left school early. She was alive, alive and safe or so I thought at the time. Thank god she was alive. There was chocolate and sweeties. Chocolate and sweeties and home early from school! For a moment, this world almost seemed better than the last, but with time thought became possible again, and then I could slowly begin to conceive of my planet’s destruction, the meaning and enormity of the event. My small head was not large enough, so I grabbed hold of my ears and pulled until my skull cracked and the skin stretched. My already tenuous umbilical was torn, but we do what we have to to survive. As we carried our belongings in the long chain of refugees I went beyond mere survival, lifting twice the weight needed.

Home and watching telly; they had a map showing where we live. The map had a dot for Edinburgh but not Glasgow. Dad said it’s because they want to imply to people what a sleepy wee village we are. Soon you couldn’t move for the journalists. They swarmed over the face of our world, examining and dissecting, reporting back to their satellites on the volcanoes and tsunamis and earthquakes that ravaged us.

We dammed the lava flow with piles of flowers. Piles of flowers and free teddy bears. My bear was from Denver, a place so far away that it would be years until the light from our sun’s supernova reached their eyes. Flowers and bears make a poor dam, and could not save that world. They were not even any use in building the new one, merely reminding us of what had been destroyed.

We went to the church to pray, though the damage was done and we knew no God could help us. Never had that kirk been so busy! And the queue was surrounded by carrion crows, left to prey on us in our weakness as the dead themselves were beyond reach. I came close to being devoured by one from Canadian TV before my parents drove it away with spears thrown by their eyes.

I caught the last flight leaving our world, and far below saw half myself still trapped. She fared even worse, but we held each other tight and escaped to found new lives elsewhere.

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