Sunday 4 June 2023

Battle for the Crag

Battle for the Crag

Penon de Velez de la Gomera, March – April 1922 

An earlier version of this article appeared in the magazine of the Society of Twentieth Century Wargames (SOTCW) The Journal

Penon (crag) de Velez de la Gomera is a small offshore island located 119 km (72.7 miles) southeast of Ceuta. It is a steep rock island with a length of 400 meters northwest-southeast and a width of up to 100 meters, and a height of 80 meters above the sea, it covers about 19,000 square meters in total. There is another smaller island linked to its larger neighbor by a wooded bridge. The islands are situated only 85 meters from the Moroccan shore and can be easily reached by foot at low tides.

Initially captured by Spain in 1508 when an expedition under the command of Pedro Navarro was sent to destroy the pirates who populated it, and who were constantly attacking and looting the coast of Southern Spain. The expedition was successful and Spain captured the Penon, but they lost it again in 1522 after a successful Berber attack, in which the whole Spanish garrison was slaughtered. In 1564, after some failed attempts, the Spaniards re-conquered it and they have retained control of it ever since, despite having been besieged on several occasions.

The main island is covered in the remains of ruins from centuries of fortifications, built one on top of another. There is little or no plant life and no source of fresh water, though the Spanish built good cisterns. The island was for many years used as a penal colony with prisoners forced to work for mining and farming interests on the Moroccan mainland.

The Riffi attack – March 22, 1922

The Penon was garrisoned by a company of men from the Regiment de Infantries de Africa No68 commanded by a captain. The garrison also had two small cannon and one machine gun. Apart from the garrison there were also a number of prisoners and civilians on the Penon including wives and families of officers.

After dark on March 22, the Riffi using small boats silently approached the small island. They managed to scale the rock without being spotted and then without warning swarmed over the parapet and attacked the soldiers stationed there. The garrison was alerted by gunfire and rushed to man the main defences, just in time, it was low tide and the Riffi were attacking the main island from the shore. Other Riffi tried to cross the connecting bridge between the two islands or fired at the defenders from their vantage point.

The Riffi main attack was beaten off, but the captain was killed and many of the garrison also casualties. Things were so grim that the civilian families were evacuated off the Penon by naval submarine during the nights of 24/25 March.

El Bustamente

The situation got steadily worse with the defenders under constant rifle and occasional cannon fire until early April 7th when volunteers from La Legion chosen by lottery from the best shots among the various companies where transported aboard the steamship Bustamante by sea from Melilla. The relief party; Lieutenants – Jose Martinez Esparza and Alfreez Diaz de Rabago with one sergeant, six corporals and forty-four legionnaires immediately moved into the forward positions on the rock. The next morning they launched an assault on the smaller island driving the Berbers off at bayonet point. With the arrival of the legionnaires upon the Penon, the enemy’s ardor diminished and although they continued to harass the defenders they never again attacked in force.
Period photo with Lt. Esparza centre front.

The Game

For the purposes of our game, we decided to ignored the civilians and start at the point where the Riffi were already occupying the smaller island and are making their final all out attack. The Spanish garrison was alerted and had called for reinforcements which were on the way by ship.

 It was decided that the ship with the Legion reinforcements would arrive by sea at 1D6 turns + 5 (much to the boys horror a 6 was rolled).

My representaion of The Crag

Spanish defenders


Captain, lieutenant, NCO, radio operator, 3 runners 

Reduced Rifle company

2 – 9 man platoons (rifles, 1 grenade each)

Support weapons

65mm mountain gun + crew (12 rds)

Hotchkiss MMG + crew

Riffi attackers

Main body (attacking from the beach and island)

4 -5 groups of warriors – 10 men each (rifles & knives)

 2 fishing boats

Each with 7 warriors (rifles & knives)


El Bustamante armed trawler/gunboat

Armed with a 4pdr & 2 Hotchkiss MGs

 Half company La Legion

Officer, NCO, standard

2 – 8 man platoons (rifles, 2 – grenades)

LMG team

The Bustamante arrives just in time!

The game was a very close run thing, the Spanish defenders fire was unlucky, whilst the Riffi (me) kept rolling 6s. The Spanish slowly withdrew along the island, but were out of officers and virtually wiped out just as El Bustemente arrived! The ships crew used their MGs and 4pdr to good effect as the legionnaires scrambled ashore. Once ashore the battle-cry "Viva la Muerte!" was shouted and the two platoons with colours flying launched a bayonet charge into the remaining Riffi.

We played the game using 20mm figures from my collection. The Infanteria No.68 were mostly British Zulu War figures from Newline Designs with some Bandera and Irregular SCW. My Legion figures are a mix of Bandera, Irregular, Barcino and BUM SCW figures. My Riffi are Blitz Goumiers and Bandera/Irregular SCW Regulares with various plastic Arabs. El Bustamente is the Britannia Miniatures - Armed German Trawler, the crew are a mix of WW2 Kreigsmarine and Russian Naval Marines from Kelly’s Heroes; the Riffi fishing boats were Britannia British Naval Dorys.


The Betrothed of Death by Jose E. Alvarez

The Spanish Enclaves in Morocco by Robert Rezette

An AAR plus photos of our game can be found here: 


  1. Amazing story and post! Last month I was in Madrid and went also to Toledo military museum. A bit fascist in its soul but a great resource for visual information.

  2. Cheers João, one of these days I`m going to actually find time to visit these wonderful Spanish cities and their museums, we always seem to
    be busy - this retirement isn`t as tranquil as people say it is :)

  3. Richard, you keep presenting these 'surprises' another gem from history (in both a historical event and previous article link) and a lovely tabletop layout to match! Another former Sotcw article that was published before my membership began. I must go back through the back issues I have since been gifted to seek out other gems. But as you note, 'retirement' can be busy - if mostly in a fun way for me - so its another to add to my 'to do' list! Carl

    1. Cheers Carl, I`m having a Riff War resurgence the last couple of weeks - I`ve two new skirmish games in the editing phase which will play well with my 28mm set-up. Also this months game is also set in Morocco in 1925 - I`ve spent a fair bit of time designing an interesting game, its all set-up ready to go.

    2. Richard B - will you be publishing those two new skirmish games?

    3. Yes, eventually they are in the editing/tinkering phase.

  4. Great news Richard. You should submit them to a magazine, mind us readers luv your freebies so we wont complain if you dont put them to mags!! Carl