German Counterattack on Shirokoye Bulotev
It's dawn on 10 July 1943 in western Russia, where the German II Battalion, 507th Infantry Regiment of the 292nd Infanterie Division, with support from II Battalion, 18th Panzer Regiment, 18th Panzer Division, is on the attack, looking to evict the Soviet 1019th Rifle Regiment, which has been whittled down to less than company strength! Shirokoye Bulotev itself is a bit shell-shocked, having changed hands several times, this is the sixth battle for this very ground in less than a week. It's tough to gauge who has the advantage in this fight; the Germans are veteran troops, and though they're understrength, they still have plenty of heavy weapons, and are buttressed by a platoon of Panzer Mk IIIs. Additionally, they're commander has commandeered three armored halftracks to give his infantry some added mobility. The Soviets are worn down conscripts, vastly understrength, but they've got quite a few heavy weapons themselves, and they recently took in three T-34 refugees from the fight in Kastenwald, plus the Germans have a lot of open ground to cover in order to take the ultimate objective, the Collective Farm.
I am playing this game because I have the good fortune of being buddies with Steve of the "Sound Officer's Call" blog (https://soundofficerscall.blogspot.com/2019/10/firestorm-ponyri-station-campaign-first.html), and he is running a "Firestorm Ponyri" campaign. He is playing some games with his local buddies, but was unable to play all of the games himself; rather than simply 'dice off' for results of campaign fights they were unable to play on the table top, Steve asked if anyone in the blogosphere wanted to help, so here I am.
It's been a little bit of an issue that I literally just sold off a bunch of German late war gear, so I'm a bit understrength, but Steve is working with me to make sure the fights I get match up with the forces I have. This is the first fight I've played, and I hope it wasn't too much a pain for him, I certainly want to keep going! First, I love to play games; second, it's been way too long since I've played any Eastern Front games (maybe eight years or so?); and lastly, I'm a solo gamer that still craves some comradery, so whenever I can help another wargamer out, I'm always quick to jump at it.
The orders of battle for this fight:
5 x Rifle Platoon
1 x MG Platoon (4 x MG-42)
1 x Mortar Platoon (4 x 8.0cm tube)
1 x Infantry Gun Platoon (2 x 7.5cm howitzer)
1 x Anti-Tank Gun Platoon (2 x PaK-38 5.0cm ATG, with prime mover)
1 x Armored Carrier Platoon (3 x Sdkfz 251 halftrack)
1 x Truck Platoon (3 x Opel Blitz)
1 x Panzer Platoon (5 x Pz Mk IIIJ)
3 x Rifle Platoon
1 x Machine Gun Platoon (3 x Maxim .30-cal MG)
1 x Mortar Platoon (3 x 82mm tube)
1 x Anti-Tank Rifle Platoon (3 x PTRD)
1 x Anti-Tank Gun Platoon (2 x 45mm ATG)
1 x Tank Platoon (3 x T-34/76)
The railway embankment terrain feature essentially turns the fight for Shirokoye Bulotev into two separate fights. I actually deliberated long and hard on how best to reflect this, based what the Soviet defense would/should look like. The Germans are attacking from the northwest, so the patch of trees at top left will serve as both their base of fire for support elements, and their line of departure for assault elements. My initial inclination was to put the railway embankment at the far left edge of the table, and let that be the German start line, with the Germans having to skyline themselves, then cross an entire table consisting of crop fields, devoid of cover, with the Soviets dug-in at far right, even not occupying the Collective Farm (which would have been in about the same location as it is now, maybe a little further left), but prepared to counterattack it with their tank platoon, maybe even carrying a platoon of tank riders, should the German assault make it that far.
However, the Gamemaster informed me there needed to be a definite differentiation between the Veteran German force and the Conscript Soviet force. So, that made me consider not only how the German and Soviet forces would perform on the tabletop (in the event, the Germans had some real problems keeping their troops moving and getting their ample support weapons to perform effectively, despite this, and I probably let the Soviets get away with some actions that were probably a bit too crafty for beat-up conscripts), but also how they would deploy on the tabletop. So I decided that the 'skyline the Germans with the railway embankment' defense was too tactically advantageous for the beat-up Soviet conscripts, so I put them on this table and started them with the classic rookie mistake (and one I regularly make in wargames, anyway, just look what the Germans do!) of splitting their forces, no unity of effort, no concentration. Let's take a look.
I didn't get a separate picture of it, so I'll address it here: the Soviet Mortar Platoon is at bottom center, just right of the railway embankment, with their Platoon Commander sitting atop the railway embankment, acting as their forward observer.
So, the German plan, in order to make things easy for the Russkies, the Germans will split their efforts. The German 1st Rifle Company will clear the woods in the southwest (bottom left), then wheel left and push east for the objective, the Collective Farm. 1st Company has three rifle platoons: 1st Platoon is in the assault, 2nd Platoon is supporting from the wood, and 3rd Platoon is the reserve, loaded up in the halftracks. In the halftracks, yes, but not as battalion reserve, they are 1st Company's reserve; the German battalion commander knows he should probably just bypass the southwestern woods and sweep around to the north in order to reach the objective, but he is very much concerned with not leaving a Soviet force of unknown size and composition in his rear. Therefore, he has 1st Company's 3rd Platoon loaded up in the halftracks, ready to dive into the woods, and they'll be moving out on a hair trigger, he really wants those southwest woods as soon as possible. He then intends for the halftracks to double back to the woods to pick up the 1st Company's 2nd Platoon and rush them forward.
The German heavy weapons (MG Plt, Mortar Plt, and IG Plt) are all set in in the northwest woods (with 1st Company's 2nd Plt), looking to shoot in 1st Platoon's attack into the southwest woods. Once the southwest woods are secure, the MG and IG platoons will load up in the trucks and push up to the railway embankment to support the assault on the Collective Farm.
The two rifle platoons of 2nd Company and the Panzer Company will push straight east; the Germans have already spotted Soviet defensive positions atop the railway embankment, so one rifle platoon will handle those, while the other rifle platoon and the panzers will push straight over the railway embankment and look to envelop the Collective Farm from the east, isolating the objective.
The Germans don't have a reserve force to speak of; owing to 1) a necessity to press this attack home as quickly as possible, and 2) being severely understrength, all forces are committed either to the attack on the southwest woods or the railway embankment envelopment. Everybody but the German ATG Platoon, which is starting the game limbered up and will be waiting to see if and when any Soviet armor appears (the Germans are not aware of any Soviet armor in the area).
It's go time!
Penalty flag! This is violating their rules of engagement! 1st Company's assault on the southwest woods was supposed to have priority of fire! This is what happens when you split your forces!
*That's what happens when you split your forces! He should be on the right, making sure his men get into the southwest woods!
*That's to be expected when you're conscript and have enemy troops on top of you.
*So much for the Germans getting into the southwest woods in a hurry... The Soviets are beat up, with only the PC and one squad left from the rifle platoon, two of three MGs knocked out, and one of two ATGs out of action, but they're hanging on, while the Germans have their 1st and 3rd Platoons (of the 1st Company) pinned down in the open, and their 2nd Platoon way back in the northwest woods.
The German 1st Plt, 2nd Co, PC grabs a squad and moves them up the railway embankment...
*If you're wondering why the Soviet tanks haven't done anything yet, well they really couldn't see much. Matter o'fact the only thing they've been able to see so far was the PC and 1st Sqd of 1st Plt, 2nd Co, when it popped up on the railway embankment, but they couldn't fire for fear of hitting their own men. Perhaps a more savvy unit could have worked out a signal for the infantry to duck down in their entrenchments and let the tankers 'scratch their backs.'
*So much for 'veteran troops,' eh? My rallying dice have been horrible...
On the German left, the German CO gets involved, moving the ATG Platoon up to the railway embankment, even getting Gun #1 into position and unlimbered (right, with Gun #2 still on the move at top left).
*Neither smoke landed directly in front of the enemy emplacement, they both landed to about 10 o'clock...
*Yes, the Germans have not yet actually taken the southwest woods, but even they cannot help but note that they have received no fire from those positions in the last ten minutes, and assume the Soviets have fallen back.
Miraculously, the 3rd Platoon, 1st Company troops (down to a single squad now) are rallied.
*This is partly because of conscript crews, partly because the Germans are hull-down, and partly just down to poor dice rolling.
*I really did think that the veteran German crews would be able to do some damage from hull-down positions atop the railway embankment, but that has proven to not be the case, soooooo…. CHARGE!!!
*That is not good news; you broke cover to get closer so that you wouldn't miss, and you used all three tanks to go after one, just to be sure of a kill, and then you didn't get it???
*This is a very interesting development: the Soviet 1st Platoon remnants are now in position to ambush the German halftracks coming over the railway embankment, or they could do something really audacious like have their mortars do a quick pound on the German 2nd Plt, 2nd Co, in the trench at top right, then have the 1st Plt storm the trench, which would put a serious hurt on German infantry strength AND seriously threaten their ATG position. This is what I was talking about when I mentioned some tactical decisions/actions that were probably beyond the scope of a conscript force.
*That was incredible! That stuff about 'firing his MG-42... 2nd Platoon dismounting..." is all narrative trash; what happened was this: the German halftrack moved up into contact with the Soviets, then rolled to see who won close combat. The Soviets had a very serious advantage in the roll-off, owing to the fact it was infantry vs a halftrack and ambushing vs surprised, but the Germans still managed to pull it off. Quite incredible. I don't know what it would have meant overall for the fight; perhaps something incredible could have happened (as I mentioned, maybe the Soviet mortars pound the German 2nd Plt,, 2nd Co, in the trench, and then these guys lose assault them to take the trench back, or maybe it's just enough to have knocked out the Halftrack PC and the 2nd Plt PC and one squad, so that they can hold back the rest of the halftracks and 2nd Platoon while the Soviet mortars pound them, maybe wearing down the Germans enough that their force morale breaks. I dunno, but now it don't matter!
While all this was happening, the last Soviet MG team, the one that froze atop the railway embankment, runs back down the west slope of the embankment, back into the southwest woods, where they link back up with their Commanding Officer who, inexplicably, has just been sitting there, chilling out in the woods.
*Which leads me to another issue: in all my other games, the CO plays a very large part in getting men and machines up and moving, but in IABSM it's really a crapshoot, depending on whether and when their cards come out. I'm really not a fan of the CO just sitting around, I want him to be a lot more dynamic, so I'm looking at solutions. One is to add the 'dynamic leader' card to the deck, and let the CO operate on that or his own card. Another is to let the CO act at the end of the turn if his card has not come out. We'll see.
So the Germans did it, they re-took Shirokoye Bulotev. In the overall scheme of things, this means all options are still open, which in turn means that the Germans can actually beat 'real life' by succeeding in this portion of the Battle of Kursk. What does that mean? Well, the last campaign turn is coming up, so stand by for more vicious, desperate fighting!
So, the game was fun, but didn't go the way I thought it would. First, it took forever; I figure the game took about four and a half hours, played out over about six and a half hours, because I had to take a couple breaks when my family was bothering me ;) But the game itself; man, part of how long the game took was just down to how bad I was rolling to get the Germans moving. The German heavy weapons couldn't seem to get anything decisive done, so their infantry was just constantly getting pinned down by Soviet mortars and machine guns, whose heavy weapons were doing a great deal of damage. So the German infantry would get roughed up, and then couldn't get moving again.
Keep in mind that the southwest woods wasn't really taken; the Soviets beat the hell out of the German 1st and 3rd Platoons, knocked out two tanks, then walked way. Hell, the German 1st and 3rd Platoons could barely get rallied after the Soviets had pulled back!!! And the German success in the center was really all down to their 2nd Platoon, 2nd Company, Platoon Commander grabbing a single rifle squad, getting lucky enough to have advanced before the Soviet mortars laid waste to the rest of his platoon and 1st Plt/2nd Co, then moving up and clearing the Soviet trenchline on the railway embankment all by themselves!
With the German 1st Company pinned down outside the southwest woods and the 2nd Company pinned down pretty much on their start line, I was having serious doubts as to whether the German assault was going to succeed, and it was really the weakness of the Soviet deployment that did them in. If the Soviets could have gotten anything, anything into the southwest woods to bolster their defense their, they'd have almost certainly won. I seriously pondered having the Soviet 3rd Platoon leave the Collective Farm, cross the railway, and reinforce the southwest wood. But being conscript, I figured that would probably be beyond what you could expect of them, and in game terms, they were only foot mobile, so they probably would have never made it in time, even if I'd have re-grouped the PC and last squad of 1st Platoon with the last MG team and the CO and had them make a final stand. And even if they had, I think at that point the Germans re-focus their effort: with the objective (the Collective Farm) now abandoned and with increased enemy activity observed in the southwest woods, the Germans pull back the 1st and 3rd Platoons of 1st Company and use them (with heavy weapons, as necessary) to contain the Soviet force in the southwest woods, then have 2nd Plt/1st Co load in halftracks and move to support 2nd Co, along with the Panzer and ATG Platoons to make the attack via a left hook. The Soviet tank platoon would have been the only thing left on the east side of the embankment, and you saw how well they did, so you figure it would have been a cake walk for the Germans to get to the objective and leave the Soviet forces in the southwest woods to wither and die.
And that's what it really all came down to for the Soviets: the lack of a reserve (much less a mobile reserve), the inability of the Soviets to get a reserve where they needed it because of the 'segregated battlefield' owing to the railway embankment (even if they had one), and the extra poor showing of the Soviet tank platoon. I don't feel bad about having the Soviet tanks dig-in; it was a conscript force, and digging tanks in for the defense was done in real life, but damn, I was expecting the Soviet tankers to do a bit better than losing three dug-in tanks and only killing one panzer in the open. In the narrative I put that the climax was German Halftrack PC running into the Soviet 1st Platoon PC, but that was really more of the breakaway point. The climax was the German tanks and ATGs getting up on the railway embankment to shoot it out with the dug-in Soviet tanks, but that turned into an anti-climactic stalemate, so the real climax was when the Germans flushed out T-34 #2 with 1st Plt, 2nd Co, and charged their tanks down the embankment into point-blank range. That was the action that decided the game; if the Soviet armor was destroyed they wouldn't have been able to hold the Germans off of the objective, and the German armor was destroyed (and assuming the Soviet mortars finally knock out the German ATGs), the Germans don't have the wherewithal to get over the railway embankment and take the Collective Farm while subjected to HE fire from those tanks. And if you're thinking, "just smoke them," I'm pretty sure the Soviet tanks would have come out of their positions to deliver HE and MG fire on any German infantry advancing without anti-tank weapons. And I can't really see German infantry taking the T-34s out, there just wasn't enough cover (the only thing saving the German 1st Plt/2nd Co was that the Soviet tanks had to deal with the German tanks and ATGs).
But the halftrack/Soviet riflemen matchup sure was fun! ;)
In any case, here's looking forward to my next East Front game, which will probably be the last one for awhile. I hope you've enjoyed these, and let me know what you think of my ramblings on tactics and tactical decision making.