A Campaign Game Spring ’43 Turn for the History Books!
Part I: The Baltic Border Backhand Bludgeon
By Alan Emrich with Jeff Nyquist
My friend Jeff Nyquist (pictured here) and I have held open-door gaming sessions of Thunder in the East (using its "Upgrade Kit" Vassal playtest module) among the ETO team of playtesters and developers for some time now. We have playtested and tweaked the Campaign Game (commencing from Barbarossa) a number of times to make sure it provides narrative fidelity and balance both as a stand-alone scenario, a TITE Campaign Game and in the larger ETO multi-game scheme of things. It is a tall order!
Now, however, we have played a truly spectacular and memorable single game turn (and its aftermath) with such dynamic back-and-forth that we simply had to share it with you as an example of the type of gameplay you will find in Frank Chadwick’s ETO series! In this in-depth four-part series, each examines a different sector of the front line over time while part IV wraps things up with an epilogue and debrief sharing what we have learned. Enjoy!
This article series was written prior to the "ETO-izing" of the rules. We will try to note the changes as they appear.
It has been an excellent Campaign Game thus far. In brief, the Axis had a wonderful run of luck throughout most of 1941; they sent the Soviets back pell-mell to preserve their forces and stop their morale from bleeding into extinction (along with their troops).
The Axis demurred from pushing very hard in the North.
Instead, they were concentrating their Panzers southward and, reinforced, raced their forces toward Moscow in the center. It was at that center section of the line where the Soviets offered their only notably determined resistance.
Where the Axis really made hay, however, was in the Ukraine as they swallowed it up whole and pushed eastward up to Stalingrad’s door before the onset of bad weather in 1941.
The Soviets held Crimea and the Lower Don River from Stalingrad to Rostov, but barely.
A reinforced Axis bridgehead across the Don threatened the door to the Caucasus.
In 1941, the Soviets held Moscow, but the Axis remained in two of its adjacent hexes for many months (well into 1942)! For quite some time, every Soviet turn began with a Stavka debate about whether to evacuate Stalin (and taking the morale hit; Soviet morale was a great concern), but every debate ended with keeping Stalin the Capital in the belief that he could hang on “one more turn.” Soviet resources would steadily find their way to the Moscow sector, followed by more Axis forces, and eventually, things stalled out for both sides during the inclement weather. Still... burning documents were warming hands in the Kremlin during the Winter of '41 and it looked like a Soviet collapse was coming during '42. Our reflective appraisal when the Summer of '42 started was that the Soviets were only a few small calamities away from losing!
Ultimately, Moscow held (and Stalin stuck around to see it), but the late Spring ’42 line opened with an Axis drive around Voronezh that looked unstoppable. The Soviets began hastily preparing defenses along the far banks of the Volga between Moscow to Stalingrad, anticipating the impending Axis breakout in the fast-approaching Summer. The lines for both sides might stretch to the breaking point (much as they did historically in the Caucuses at this time). What is Russian for "Game over, man; game over!"?
However, that breakout never came! For all the good luck the Axis enjoyed in ’41, the Soviets finally caught enough breaks in ’42 to “take the blows” and (more-or-less) hold their line. In the meantime, the Axis cleared Crimea, Odessa, and then marched on Leningrad with the many units freed up from those campaigns. They probed the Soviet line between Leningrad and Moscow looking to breakthrough at the Valdai Hills, but through sheer grit, the Soviets held on. Voronezh was a bogged down, Verdun-esque meat grinder, and the Germans could pull no rabbits out of their tanks elsewhere. The Soviet Union had survived the crisis!
The weather from Autumn ’42 through Spring of ’43 was execrable. From the October III ’42 turn through the May IV ’43 turn, against all probability, there were exactly two turns of Clear weather! November, March, April, and May were a complete Mud-fest as the armies slogged through endless Rasputitsa. The Axis took this opportunity to build a fortified line of Romanians and Germans in the south, and then shored up their creaking defenses along the Baltic States’ border with the Soviet Union. There, in the north, no ground was left to give under any circumstance, and so to that sector, the Panzers were dispatched!
Then at last, on the June I ’43 turn, the clouds parted, the ground dried, and the two sides that had long been preparing for this day through the dark seasons preceding – now tanned, rested, rebuilt, and ready – launched into one of the most interesting single game turns we have played thus far in Thunder in the East.
The Starting Situation
Each Year, late in the Spring and Summer Seasons (particularly because the Summer Months have four turns (instead of only 3 during Autumn or Spring and only 2 in Winter), the Resource Points (RPs) received at the start of that Season are typically spent down to nothing by its end. Thus, in June and September, both sides resemble two exhausted fighters attempting to land their haymaker punch and send the other side reeling.
So too it was on this amazing turn. Both sides had built up to full hands of 3 cards (and, by the way, played them all on that turn!), and both sides were nearly depleted of critical Equipment and Offensive Points. Consequently, the opposing armies stood toe-to-toe and, with the Axis going first each turn, they appraised the Soviets for potential breakthrough locations and gathered up their strength in an effort to land their haymaker...
The Axis Card Hand
The Axis had been building up for this attack opportunity with two Medium events and one Small event in their card hand.
First, they brought out German Generals. This reliable, ever-ready card grants an HQ starting that turn in Attack mode (i.e., it was in Attack mode last turn and its continuation this turn is free) one glorious additional attack support odds shift to every Battle within its range.
Second, the entire Axis line would benefit from the presence of German Major Heavy units (i.e., Panzer Corps) because the New Model Tank Deployed card meant that the Panther tanks were arriving to provide one white bolt in each attack they participated in.
Finally, because the Soviet Air Force had grown so formidable during the long lull, German Fighter Aces left the classrooms and returned to the front to inflict stinging additional losses to the foe in the skies.
The Luftwaffe’s Show Begins
Flying into the late Spring of ’43, the Axis skies have filled with hope. They had assiduously maintained their air strength (to the detriment of forces on the ground) in the face of Soviet commitment to do the same for their Air Force. Now, the Air Marshals sent several improved 4-strength Fighters (and Fighter-Bombers: Bf-109Gs and Fw-190As) to clear the skies. Additionally, they sent two more uber-amazing Ground Attack Bombers (Hs-129s) to join the ever-busy Stukas. Between all of the Axis Air units, there were now four 4-strength Fighters and four double-red bolt Ground Attack Bombers. Awesome!
On this turn, the Axis planned to unleash all they possess in the skies and deal a stunning blow! Unfortunately for them, although they planned to attack Soviet airfields, the call for Ground Support was too great and Axis planes dotted the skies in support of myriad Ground Battles! A loss in focus that would soon have consequences...
Battles on the Baltic Frontier Part I: The Axis Attacks
With the Axis pushed back to the border between the Baltic States and the Soviet Union, Berlin commanded no further retreat. In the north, reinforcements were rushed to the front and it was stabilized with 4 Panzer Corps to create a “line of steel” as the bad weather set in during Autumn and Winter of ’42 and ’43. Interestingly, however, when the Axis played cards to improve their defenses, less than one-quarter of those defense improvements went to this sector – the remainder went to the south to shore up the Romanian “Rostov salient” north of the Don River.
The best defense, however, remains a good offense, and the Axis units shoring up the Baltic Line were ready to put their Attack Strengths to use! Queuing the Air Force to provide support (dropping “hammers” with multiple lightning bolts from the sky), the Axis put the AGNorth HQ in Attack Mode and set up two key battles.
South of Lake Peipus, OKW ordered Operation $4!7 Show – an attack hoping to generate a Breakthrough result and “turn that flank.” That is, a 5:1 attack with plenty of shifts and a high die roll would allow the Panzers a 2-hex Advance After Combat that could break things open in the north and allow them to threaten everything from the Gulf of Finland and Leningrad to all that lovely terrible terrain to the north and west. Unfortunately for the Axis (who committed all of their Fighters escorting their bombers this turn), the Soviets flew in Defensive Air Support, negating the Axis lightning bolt “hammer.” Consequently, only an unenhanced 5:1 did attack ensue.
Note that the Soviet IL-10 is present in this replay early than it would be under the 2nd edition rules; this has been revised by the 2nd edition ETO Soviet OOB mat and the new wording of the "You have the nerve...?" card.
South of the AGNorth HQ, another Panzer attack was launched at 4:1 that might also breakthrough and create an encirclement of the Soviets (like the old days), but again, the Soviets’ increasing number of “red lightning” Fighter-Bombers rushed to provide Defensive Air Support to save off a Breakthrough. Clearly, experience has taught the Soviets how much danger their line is in once the Panzers start breaking through and prowling around their rear areas! Fortunately for the Soviets, they fought the Panzers to an Exchange result.
In the end, neither attack succeeded in achieving a breakthrough; this sector of the Soviet line was not in grave peril (only confronting the usual dangers of oncoming German troops). There would be no encirclement in the north, but it was a near-run thing. Daunted, the Axis merely Advanced After Combat...
...and, during their Regular Movement Phase, the Axis took the risk of pushing deeper. Their confidence was high and the plan was to start concurrent fires all along the line – more than the Soviets could handle – in hopes that one would burn through to victory. Therefore, the plucky Panzers of Army Group North were ordered to press forward whatever the cost.
Battles on the Baltic Frontier Part II: The Soviets Strike Back
On the Soviet turn, their cards dropped:
More Spam to wring another desperately-needed Equipment Point (EP) from the foolish American capitalists;
The Russian Soul was played for its once-per-game effect to reclaim the Soviet Factories Surpass Quotas Small event card (which will help squeeze another 2 EPs out of their economy);
and then their Strategic Redeployment card which will allow massive Soviet Rail movement right into EZOCs and thus create a massive shifting of Soviet forces which the OKW could not have planned for.
The Soviets placed their friendly neighborhood HQ in Attack Mode, unleashed built-up reserves, and ordered the Partisans to join the fray and punish the arrogant Panzers oozing through the Soviet Baltic positions. It is very uplifting for the Soviet player to see Odds markers that are not red or orange (low odds attacks) but are brown and occasionally green (solid, middle odds attacks). They had some good Ground units in the neighborhood and they showed up for the Baltic States party!
Neither side committed their Air Forces to this sector during the Soviet's turn (they were busy elsewhere, as you will see in the later parts of this series).
Still, deciding to push deeper behind the Axis lines to shatter their Baltic defenses was a bold Soviet gambit. The German Panzer Corps unit already behind Soviet lines also required dealing with. The Axis had indeed started some fires; would the Soviets succeed in putting them out?
That over-extended Panzer met a Soviet die roll of 6 (DL) which, after the step loss in Battle and two more from retreating through enemy Heavy ZOCs, completely eliminated it! With that perfect storm brewing, similar Soviet success was found in the other two attacks in this sector, each followed by Soviet Advance After Combat (as shown above).
The Red Army was rolling in high gear and, by the end of the Soviet Regular Movement Phase, the Axis forces along their Baltic Line were battered, beaten, and facing a real pickle! The Red Air Force saved the day on the Axis turn and now the Red Army had turned the tables on the Soviet Turn!
Stalin had new medals stamped, made from captured German vehicles, and distributed to Soviets soldiers along this sector of the front.
To be continued. In our next action-packed installment, we examine the back-and-forth along the Polotsk-Vitebsk-Smolensk sector where the Soviets had pushed hard in the Winter and Spring but now the Axis Empires Strike Back!