A Campaign Game Spring ’43 Turn for the History Books!
Part II: The Great Pressure Point
By Alan Emrich with Jeff Nyquist
In Part I of this series, we explained the gameplay background behind this exciting single game turn (June I ’43) of Frank Chadwick’s ETO vol. I: Thunder in the East. The past was prologue and we presented first the battles along the border of the Baltic States as a series of maps showing the cut-and-thrust of the war on the Eastern Front along that sector. In this episode, we move south and eastward along the line where a surprising campaign takes some rapid, up-tempo twists.
This article series was written prior to the "ETO-izing" of the rules. We will try to note the changes as they appear.
What became known as the Vitebsk sector of the line has seen the Soviets slowly pressing southward through the preceding inclement weather months of late ’42 through early ‘43. Mighty Shock armies, reinforced with Guards and Tank Armies, made this their “grinding ground” versus the Axis. This southern drive was conceived after the Soviets conducted a brilliant surprise offensive during one of the few Clear weather turns that Spring. They played their Vasilevsky card (allowing every Advance After Combat to become a Breakthrough – which allows an entire stack to advance into the Defender’s vacated hex and Motorized units can Advance one space further!).
This created a real mess for the Axis which was exacerbated by the immediate onset of more Mud, thus limiting maneuverability and halving Heavy (i.e., Panzer) units’ Attack strengths seeking to counterattack and rectify the situation. For the Axis, this had all the appearance of a debacle in the making. However, the Axis made a series of daring (risky odds) counterattacks, rolled boldly, and achieved results that, effectively, put Stalin’s genie back in the bottle ... after yielding a few additional hexes along this sector!
The Soviets captured both Vitebsk and Smolensk with “rebounded” pressure using the many remnants from their nearly-triumphant “Vasilevsky Offensive.” Relentless Soviet pressure along this sector of the line became a priority target for the Axis once the weather finally cleared, and they wasted no time seeking out key hexes that would improve their overall position along this threatened piece of land.
Battles Along the Vitebsk Sector Part I: The Axis Attacks
The first thing the Axis noticed is that the Soviet HQ in Polotsk was in Attack Mode. Typically, that is a positive sign when choosing where to conduct your own offensive. This is because an enemy’s Attack Mode HQ marker cannot release any reserves during your turn to thwart your successes. The bad news here, of course, is that the bodyguard of post-Vasilevsky Offensive Soviet Armies formed a formidable phalanx in front of that HQ; as such, it really wasn’t vulnerable to a direct threat.
There are no longer "Defensive Reserves" in the ETO rules. The benefit of its longer logistical range is enough and their ability to "plug holes" hindered the cut-and-thrust of attack-oriented gameplay. Breakthroughs are back in style!
Undeterred, the Axis assessment was to try a bold attack to DE (eliminate) an entire large stack of Soviet units, and perhaps achieve a Breakthrough (with luck) which would allow a 2-hex Advance. That would put a Panzer Corps next to the scantly-guarded Soviet HQ unit in Polotsk.
Orders also arrived for a secondary attack vs. the Soviet 6th Guards Army as Air Support, and the New Model Tanks Deployed card could assist it. With their heels clicking in salute, the Axis maneuvered their units and set up their Battles.
The Germans have paid dearly (through their card selections – keep in mind that cards are a resource, too, that must be managed carefully) to retain their Airborne Division on the Russian Front. This was the turn where it received orders to jump and earn its pay. Dropping on the Soviet stack including the 29th Army, the Axis attack there shaped up to be a raw 3:2, raised to 2:1 from the nearby German HQ Attack support (what wargamers would still call “pretty crappy odds”).
In addition to the one White bolt from the New Model Tanks (let’s call them “Panthers,” shall we?), another White bolt was added from the Ju-88, and two Red bolts were delivered courtesy of the Romanian Hs-129s. One of these attacking bolts was canceled out by the arrival of the Soviet P-39, but since 3 is the maximum number of support dice you can add to a Battle, that P-39 wouldn’t make a difference unless the Soviet Yaks could achieve high results intercepting the escorted Axis Bombers (shooing enough of them away or outright killing them).
And the Soviets did exactly that by rolling a lucky 6 and Abort the Ju-88 unit while the Hs-129s, Damaged, pressed on to support the Battle. The Soviet P-39 essentially canceled out the Panther’s bolt, so the Axis would be rolling only 2 Support dice in this Battle.
But that’s not all! Because the German Paratroop Division landed, it not only chipped in its 2 Strength but also got to roll for airdrop “Surprise shifts.” With a Surprise Value of 3, a roll of 1, 2, or 3 would generate that many favorable shifts for the attacker. The Eagle landed with a perfect die roll of 3, adding three odds shifts to the Battle (raising the odds to 5:1 before the Support dice had their say)!
Back at OKW, expectations rose after news of the surprise achieved by the German airdrop....
Although the secondary attack vs. the Soviet Tank Army and Corps nearer to Smolensk was a Stalemate (i.e., both sides lose a step of their own choice and there is no Advance or Retreat), the German Airborne Division led the way to a Breakthrough! Wiping out an entire stack of 6 Soviet steps in a single die roll, the German Motorized (white Movement Allowance) units advanced beyond their newly-landed airborne comrades in the Battle hex, moving adjacent to the vulnerable Soviet HQ. Its single 2-strength Garrison unit would be overrun in the ensuring Axis Regular Movement Phase! Success would mean sending the Soviet HQ packing and the Axis capturing a desperately-needed Fuel Point (FP)! At last, some good news to broadcast from the radio airwaves of Berlin!
Historical aside: No doubt the Western Allies, too, noted this success and would go on to try to emulate this type of Airborne drop next year in Holland.
However, before the Germans could strike up the band and oom-pah-pah their way to glory, the Soviet HQ (just off the north edge of this picture and featured prominently in the previous installment of this article series), which is in Basic Mode, grabbed an available Soviet Reserve, a cheesy Rifle Infantry Corps, and dispatched it to their nearby comrade officers. (In ETO, the non-phasing player [used to, this has since been removed] gets to respond by placing available Reserves at that moment between the phasing player’s Combat and Regular Movement Phases.) And just like that, poof!, the genius maneuver by the Axis to crush the Soviet HQ was thwarted by one measly Soviet Rifle Infantry Corps who happened along at this critical juncture!
Deflated, the German Breakthrough boys limped back during their Regular Movement Phase to position themselves with the airborne heroes who opened the door for them.
Having had defeat snatched from the jaws of victory, the Axis used this, their Regular Movement Phase, to establish a defensive posture and not leave the Soviets anything too tempting for their own Combat Phase. That was a tall order; the view from Army Group HQ is that there are simply too many Soviets and not enough Germans to keep the roof from collapsing in the long run – but would it hold in the short run?
Battles Along the Vitebsk Sector Part II: The Soviets Strike Back
Do you know how you should never poke a stick into a hornet’s nest? Well, that is what the Axis achieved in this sector of the line as the Soviets considered their turn. Stavka ordered attacks all along this sector at any non-ridiculous odds to take the pressure off in the Kursk sector (which is the subject of the next installment of this series).
Arranging the Soviet Battles included a Partisan Attack on Minsk, Night Bombers vs. Axis Airfields, and no less than six attacks at 3:1 odds or lower (all with little air support)! We call these “attrition odds” attacks and the Soviet Armies were mostly full-strength, 3-step Army units versus Axis 2-step Corps units; long term, the attritional math should favor the Soviets if they can avoid having their huge stacks vaporized one by one by Axis “hammers” (exactly as two were during the preceding Axis turn).
Interestingly, the lowest-odds attack (the 3:2 versus the German 1st Motorized Infantry Corps in the lower-right corner of the above illustration) received a full Soviet “hammer” of 3 Close Support dice. Normally, the Soviet Il-10 unit isn’t even available until next year, but the Soviets selected a Large event card that allowed them to move forward one new-model Air unit from their next Reinforcement Group. Thanks to this lone Air unit, the Soviets could put 3 Support dice in a single battle (just as the Axis have done the entire war with their Stuka units!). [The Il-10s would not be there under the latest ETO rules.]
As you can see, the Soviets hit their numbers on the die time and again, inflicting Retreats everywhere and attrition in most places. The Axis suffered about 4 Personnel Points (PPs) and 2 Equipment Points (EPs) worth of losses (in this sector alone) and gave up many of their forward-position hexes (leaving those troops very exposed on the front line); meanwhile, the Soviets lost only 1 Personnel Point!
The Soviet Regular Movement Phase followed, where they conducted a measured and circumspect march forward. The 5th Shock Army and 5th Cav-Mech Group pushed forth to help hinder the Axis’ ability to move their Panzer Corps laterally. The German 43rd and 52nd Corps were carefully surrounded and cut off; the Axis player (on their turn) would have to rescue them, abandon them, or drop Air Supply to them and try to hang on.
To be continued. In our next action-packed installment, we examine the double-cluster drama around Kursk. Would this be The Ride of the Valkyries or The Elephant Tanks’ Graveyard?