Saturday, 16 December 2017
Eric Knowles R.I.P.
It is with great sadness, tinged with a certain degree of regret, that I have to report the death of Eric Knowles at the respectable age of 91. Eric was a contemporary of Grant, Featherstone, Lawford and Young as well as an old soldier to boot and whilst he may not be as well known as these worthies he possessed a formidable military intellect coupled with a politically incorrect NCOs sense of humour and with little patience for fools (or know it all teenagers).
I first met Eric when he and his wife Ivy owned and ran the New Model Army Limited wargames shop in Manor Park, East London way back in 1978. At the time Eric only worked in the shop at weekends as working full time was ruining his enjoyment of his hobby. As I recall he was working in security at the time and I remember him referring to the van he drove as the ‘Iron Zeppelin’. I used to occasionally talk to him on Saturday mornings when the old Newham Wargames Club would meet to game in the cellar. There was also a meeting of Eric’s select few - including Chris Hardman, Neil Fox, Dave Weedon and others - on Wednesday evenings in the cellar to fight actions from his famous Madasahatta campaign. I can remember how proud I was when he asked me to come along on the Wednesday to take part - make no mistake, this was an honour, rather like being able to stay up with the adults at a party.
I was drafted in at the very end of the Madasahatta campaign but took my command very seriously - a pair of German gunboats during the allied bombardment of Port Victoria using Fletcher Pratt. They spent the entire battle circling in the inner basin of the harbour trying desperately to avoid 12 and 15” shells and then retaliating with single 3.4” guns....
I should also mention that it was about this time I had the good fortune to meet Bob Cordery.
Madasahatta (an island some 300 miles east of Madagascar which loosely mirrored the colonial scene in East Africa at the outbreak of WW1) came to an end and before the next great adventure started Eric decided that he wanted to make use of his huge 17th century Ottoman Turkish army (as I recall he had over a thousand 25mm Janissaries) to stage a refight of the siege of Vienna in 1683. I should mention that Eric was hugely fond of warfare in the early 18th century and possessed a vast collection of figures for the period. We duly fought this in the cellar with yours truly defending (or rather failing to) the walls. As I recall Vienna fell but the Turks were defeated in the field. It was great fun though and Eric was in his element as the director of operations. In fact he seemed to derive as much pleasure from organising these events as he did from fighting them. On a similar vein I can also recall taking part in a huge relight of the battle of Minden at a local school and Rossbach at Present Arms, the annual wargames show that used to be organised by SEEMS (the South East Essex Military Society). Eric certainly liked his battles in the grand manner. It was about this time that he and his son, Bill, made use of Eric’s collection for a wargame scene in the TV program Charlie Muffin.
Eric was also a very keen naval wargamer and owned a large collection of 1/1200th models. These, and his fertile imagination would form the basis of the South East Asia WW1 naval campaign fought using Fletcher Pratt rules on a tabletop - initially in the cellar but mostly at his house in Seven Kings. Yours truly was assigned command of the Turkish SE Asia squadron and again, I took this honour very seriously - in fact it started my lifelong interest in the Ottoman Turks. Eric churned out ship after after ship for this campaign, conversions of plastic kits (Eaglewall and Airfix) and also the Minifigs warships as well. All the participants contributed models - I recall scratchbuilding a Goeben - and when the action commenced we had forces far in excess of what a colonial squadron would look like. Eric took command of the US Navy who initially were neutral.
The central powers lost heavily from the outset, so much so that more and more outlandish ships were added to the mix to keep things going. When the US Navy declared war the Turks were there first target. I recall we had a number of very interesting actions with honours being even (I always felt that I went up a notch in Eric’s estimation as a result of this although he used to wince at the length and detail of my written orders we were required to submit).
Eric had a fairly elastic interpretation on any rules being used although he would always be able to justify any, shall we say, dubious decisions. He was very fond of making ‘umpirical decisions’ - usually delivered in a very tongue in cheek fashion - which occasionally did not sit well to those of us that were more closely wedded to the written word of the rule. He would brook no argument though and in retrospect his decisions were firmly grounded in historical precedent.
The campaign fizzled out after the Central Powers had been thoroughly trounced, several times.
When Eric retired he and Ivy moved to Lincolnshire where he continued his military interest by serving as a volunteer guide at Coningsby for, I believe, the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.
I last saw Eric some 30 years ago although I did speak with him around 15 years ago - he was looking to offload some of his collection but nothing came of it which was a shame as it was something to see. His house in Seven Kings had books and figures all over the place - I can only but wonder at Ivy’s patience!
It seems funny to be writing about someone that I have not seen for some 30 years but I am keen to acknowledge the debt I owed Eric in terms of my Wargaming career so to speak. Eric was a great exponent of telling a story around a game, of putting the tabletop action into some context. Madasahatta was a great example of this and the whole background was a labour of love. It gave the games some meaning. He also believed that rules should fit the history and not the other way round - the ‘flavour’ was all important. He could be encouraging and would always have time for a sensible conversation but did not suffer fools gladly and I know because I was certainly rather naive about history that he was well versed in.
Aside from the games I took part in Eric added to my lifelong interest in both naval wargames and anything Ottoman Turkish. He also gave me an understanding of the importance of gaming narrative - a lesson I have tried to conduct my games by because if you dont have a before and after then the middle loses its value.
I do not claim to have known Eric well and was never one of his closest circle of gaming friends but I consider myself to have been fortunate to have known him and and his family and am grateful for his impact on my enjoyment of Wargaming.
My regret is that I did make more effort to stay in contact but it does not lessen the respect I hold him in and the appreciation for what he indirectly inspired in me.
He was one of a kind and we shall not see his like again.
R.I.P. Eric Knowles - ‘the sea has risen and the mist has fallen’.