A Campaign Game Spring ’43 Turn for the History Books!
Part III: Prancing Panzers and Grim Guards
By Alan Emrich with Jeff Nyquist
In Part II of this series, we examined the bowing Axis lines in the Vitebsk sector and explained how the Axis gave the Soviets a nice smack. Afterward, Stalin’s Legions responded in greater measure and were left pushing this sector of the line to very dangerous levels for the Axis. As this exciting single game turn (June I ’43) of Frank Chadwick’s ETO vol. I: Thunder in the East rolls from north to south down the line, we examine the brouhaha around Kursk which began with The Ride of the Valkyries and ended in a Russian Peasant Dance.
This article series was written prior to the "ETO-izing" of the rules. We will try to note the changes as they appear.
The Axis had a strong contingent of Heavy and Motorized units in this sector of the line, having relinquished Voronezh and then Orel (pictured, centered) to inexorable Red Army pressure. The onslaught of Soviet Guards units concentrated in a block of eight hexes looked invincible, but with lofty expression and unfurled plans, the Axis saw opportunities and reached for a can opener to the Soviets steel-plated front line.
It was in this sector that there should be glory on this turn, and the Axis gamely stepped up to their Special Movement Phase in search of it.
Battles Along the Kursk Sector Part I: The Axis Attacks
Composed in equal measures of Blitz and Krieg, German Panzer Corps concentrated at the hole in the Soviet lines, oozing one Panzer Corps into the gap and dropping a full “hammer” (our term for “big attacker shift possibility” operations, such as those with three bolts supporting it) on the Soviet Guards Infantry Army holding the door closed. In case the Soviets responded with Defensive Air Support, the New Model Tanks (“Panthers”) deployed by the Axis also chipped in another white bolt where Major Heavy (i.e., Panzer Corps) units attacked; one rarely sees four-bolt attacks (as 3 is the maximum number of Support Dice that can contribute to a battle), but – ensuring the extra would help blunt Soviet VVS delusions of rescue – the stage was set.
Supporting the big push were two Battles to the north at low odds (3:2) trying to capture some “key hexes” (i.e., those whose position it would really help you to take – such as to straighten your line, help create or relieve a small pocket, or to capture some vital ground or an Objective hex).
The Luftwaffe definitely came out to play with two double red bolt Ground Attack air units (Stukas) in the skies, and the Soviets dutifully intercepted them both and tossed a single red bolt bomber in to help defend their key hex near Orel. Like Caesar crossing the Rubicon, it was time to “Throw the dice high!”
The first key hex attack in the north produced a Defender Retreat result, but then the Axis thought better of Advance After Combat. They would have to leave their own good defensive line and so did not pursue the matter further.
The second key hex attack produced a Defender Pressed result. The Soviets choose to stand and die rather than run, thus the 2nd Guards Infantry Army was reduced from a 3-step 10-4 to a 2-step 7-4.
But snap, crackle, and pop! Half the Soviets facing the big Panzer push were forced to retreat two hexes due north from a Defender Loss result (reducing the Soviet 4th Rifle Infantry Army in the process). Their neighbors did a bit better with the 7th Guards Infantry Army pushed aside on a Defender Retreat result; the Axis pushed them back on their own line to leave a spectacular gap in the Soviet defenses!
And there it was… a gaping hole… Axis Motorized units poised to go crazy… and then the Soviets sprung the last unit their Strategic Reserve had from Orel’s HQ in Basic Mode… the proud 6th Guards Infantry Corps. This 4-4 unit had clear orders: plug the gap! Unfortunately, being a single-step unit, the full-strength Panzers could overrun it (with a 50/50 chance of success) – and succeed they did! The Germans were once again off to the green steppes beyond.
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!
Breakout time! As you can see here, the Axis advanced with reckless abandon. Thinking it was like “the old days,” the Panzers – wound up and ready to roll – achieved the breakthrough you see below, capturing Yelets in the process. Honestly, with the last Soviet Reserves committed, who could stop this Breakthrough?
Many Soviet Guards forces were pinned into the not-quite-closed pocket forming. However, these were not the panicky, depleted soldiers of the Red Army from two years ago. They would not easily surrender; they would go down fighting if it came to that. The question was, would it come to that?
"Cue the music: Ride of the Valkyries! Roll the cameras! Okay, start marching the extras!! Sow the wind, everybody! Let the good times and Panzers roll!"
Battles Along the Kursk Sector Part II: The Soviet Empire Strikes Back
Stalin decreed and the Soviet peasants responded.
At the Axis Breakthrough point, kitchen sinks from across Russia were rushed in and unceremoniously thrown at it. The HQ in Orel went into Attack Mode and commanded 6 of the 7 nearby counterattacks. Partisans launched their own efforts on the Axis rear areas and the VVS chipped in with all the support it could muster to punish the invaders for their insolence!
It was extremely fortuitous for the Soviets to have their Strategic Redeployment card at the ready; the timing of its use could not have been better to handle this existential crisis in the Soviet center!
Every Man-Ivan in the Red Army who could swing a vodka bottle entrained and rode to the front in scenes reminiscent of the opening to the film Enemy at the Gates. Fortunately, the Soviets had crack troops (Guards units) they could pull out from the (very quiet) southern sector of the line (not pictured) and these railed directly into the fray of the enemy’s ZOCs; they could deal immediate damage to the enemy – no waiting to organize behind friendly lines (i.e., out of the EZOCs first).
The bombs burst non-stop. The Axis had their Fighter Aces card at the ready and played it, increasing their punishment of larger Soviet Air unit groups. Indeed, this climactic moment had an “all in” quality very reminiscent of the historical fighting around Kursk at about this time – but would the outcome be different?
Of the entire front line, the northern elements went poorly for the Axis, which had a line now that appeared something between a mess and a disaster from the Baltic States to Bryansk (see the first two parts of this series).
As the dice continued to land, enough Soviet good fortune prevailed on the ground (if not in the air) to beat the Panzers back and constrict their operating space. The Axis suffered three precious Panzer step losses with one Panzer Corps reduced to a Korpsgruppe. Adding insult to injury, the now-reduced 41st Panzer Corp at the neck of the salient suffered a partisan attack sufficient to Interdict it (i.e., next turn it would receive no Special Movement and its Attack strength would be halved).
The worst part for the Axis (yes, there was more bad news!) was the lack of exuberance on the part of the Advancing Soviets. The waves of Guard units came forward with measured tread, keeping their lines neatly dressed and unexposed to potentially pounding counterattacks by the Axis next turn. As the Soviet Regular Movement Phase began, the Axis saw the enemy’s grim visage press forward with renewed determination.
Once again, the tables neatly turned, the German Panzerwaffe of Army Group Center found itself well and truly encircled. Even as the Soviet Air Force was still picking up the pieces from its own brutal attrition that turn, the Soviet forces at the northern end of this sector relentlessly pushed ahead. Stalin's armies were performing a careful, methodical effort to pressure the Germans to withdraw from their strong point at Bryansk.
Interestingly, each player’s turn ended with their opponent demoralized and wondering how the heck they were going to salvage the terrible situation they just inherited. Having built-up units over the spring, both sides' deadly dash toward summer looked decisive. However, these mighty armies keep proving themselves as resilient as they are relentless.
To rephrase Mr. Churchill, “This is not the end. But it is, perhaps, the beginning of the end.”
To be continued. In our next thought-provoking installment, we examine this story’s epilogue and discuss some of the key strategic choices that brought these forces to their battlefields.