A Campaign Game Spring ’43 Turn for the History Books!
Part IV: Plans and Post Mortems
By Alan Emrich with Jeff Nyquist
In Part III of this cerebral thrill-packed series, we saw the swirling Panzers of a magnificent breakthrough at Kursk meet a surprising counterattack from myriad Soviet Crack troops (both those encircled and those riding to their rescue). Under incessant air attacks, the Reich and Reds clashed and bled, each losing many more steps and Air units than they could long endure. The violence of operations around Kursk, the maneuvers and counter-maneuvers on the map, and the player prestige at stake made this a tremendously exciting single game turn (June I ’43) of Frank Chadwick’s ETO vol. I: Thunder in the East.
We would like to offer you our story’s epilogue, bring it to a thoughtful, considered conclusion and ask, “What have we learned?”
This article series was written prior to the "ETO-izing" of the rules. We will try to note the changes as they appear.
Matters did not progress further south along the front line on this June I, ’43 turn (or any of the next several, for that matter). A key Axis strategy was fortifying the Donets River line. Neatly done and strongly built, its mostly-Romanian forces faced off against a hodgepodge of Soviets who merely followed them back every step(pe) of the way from the Don River at Stalingrad. Now, with the Axis smiling back at them from Improved and Fortified Defense markers, the Soviets would require an impressive buildup in this region to open this can of worms and start driving through the Ukraine along the Black Sea – or a maneuver to dislodge them!
The Axis defenses in the south were good… perhaps too good. Since there was no potential weak spot along this, the Axis’ most eastward flank, the Soviets prodded elsewhere and found alternate avenues of advance. The Soviet strategy is to force the Axis to abandon (or at least hollow out) their “Donets Wall” by creating an Axis crisis elsewhere – a crisis of sufficient magnitude to strip away Donets Wall units to put out fires in other, more threatened sectors. Although slow to produce results, by July this Soviet strategy was bearing fruit. The Axis began to withdraw units from this line to shore up assorted calamities brewing thither and yon.
Upon reflection, the Axis has been asking, “Why didn’t we place those defensive works along the Latvian Line at the Baltic States instead?”
Ultimately, this entire June I ‘43 game turn was brought to you by… the weather!
Spring at last was ending and finally there were consecutive turns of Clear weather. This allowed for full-throttle operations by both sides and each planned to land a decisive blow that would send the other reeling. Note on this spreadsheet the dwindling of Soviet stockpiles; Equipment Points (EPs) were particularly affected, causing the Reds to demobilize an “old” Cav-Mech Group to retrieve its 2 EPs that were needed to build and replace better units. The Soviets also went through their sizable stockpile of Fuel Points (FPs) to keep their Fighters and red bolt Strike Fighters flying during the Axis’ turns to nip the enemy’s successes in the bud.
The Soviets were bleeding everywhere, but in doing so they proved able to give better than they got. Both sides were quickly exhausted, but the Axis dangerously more so.
With that, we now present the epilogue of our story.…
June II Battles Along the ’43 Eastern Front
Facing humiliation in so many locations along the front, the Axis appraised the start of the second June turn with trepidation. “It looked so promising. We thought our Kursk Offensive would help us regain the strategic initiative!”
To quote Mel Brooks, “There is nothing worse than a furious Fuhrer,” and the voice on the phone calling from Berlin was furious.
Later, an OKW top General in Minsk calmly assessed the situation as the June II game turn opened to Clear weather. Curtly addressing his officers while peering through the monocle atop a long Prussian nose and turning pages of the latest reports with two aristocratic fingers, he asked simply, “Reserves?”
“Marginal; not what we were promised.”
“You believed that fat dilettante?” With a sigh he refocused and continued, “Sector reports?”
And so it went. The first sector report concerned the crisis in the north along the eastern borders of the Baltic States. When the Axis began this turn, the situation looked as you see here:
In the Baltic sector, one week(ly game turn) later, the Axis had adequate Panzers in the vicinity to plug the holes and blunt the enemy’s drive westward – at least for now! They continued to lament the lack of troops and defenses to keep Ivan from the gates of East Prussia, but they managed to stabilize the situation by the end of the Axis June II turn to look like this:
Around Mogilev, however, matters began like this…
…and improved little. The many German Infantry units in the vicinity could do naught; they were pinned and unable to position themselves for effective counterattacks to reclaim their situation. Worse, the Luftwaffe shunned them this turn except to run an Air Supply Mission to the trapped, entrenched forces left encircled by Soviet Infantry. They did, however, receive a thoughtful telegram from the Fuhrer with his best wishes…. (Another Panzer Corps would have been far more pragmatic.)
It was the sudden disaster around Kursk that had captured the world’s imagination. German invincibility and prestige was clearly at stake as could be read in the headlines of newspapers from around the world.
With the Panzers in peril, there was precious little left in this sector to rescue them. Their orders were to fight their way out! Unfortunately, the VVS shooed away Axis Air Support leaving them with only nominal-odds attacks (any of which stood a good chance to redress their situation). However, for the pocketed Panzers all came to naught. The die picked the worst moment for the Axis to cheer for Stalin, no doubt subscribing to the old axiom, “When is the best time to kick the German Army?” “When it’s down.”
In the end, German armor remained encircled, isolated, and facing a phalanx of grizzled Guards in a pocket without escape as the world watched their slow, grinding demise. To this turn’s problems in the Axis force pool….
The Soviets would soon add three more Panzer Corps units to their scalp pole! With more than half the Axis Panzerwaffe taking up residence in the dead pile, with many of those remaining on the map depleted, and without the Equipment and Fuel Points to reconstitute them before July, the Axis hunkered down and damned the Soviet’s recent impressive luck.
In July, still two more turns away, when the new Season began, the Axis selected their Blitzkrieg! card and waited to recover as much strength as possible before using it. For their part, the Soviets selected their Air Offensive card that, when played, convincingly put the Luftwaffe on its back (with a rousing, well-above-average success for the VVS).
This too delayed the Axis from playing their Blitzkrieg! card for several turns as the half-life of the 16 Suppressed markers suffered saw them slowly removed – Fighters first, then Ground Attack planes, and finally the Bombers.
The Axis made a reluctant commitment to withdraw from their forward positions in the Ukraine to bolster the other sectors, but it was a plan borne of necessity rather than strategy. And each turn, the Axis clutched their Blitzkrieg! card awaiting the perfect opportunity to use it and unleash hellfire upon the hated foe.
Soviet exuberance at seeing Axis forces withdraw caused a fateful reaction: they moved up their timetable and sprang their trap in August, launching their Human Wave Assaults card. To the Axis’ dismay, the Soviets deftly ripped several small holes across the entire line and Soviet Armies aggressively marched into each of them with the notion that the Axis could not plug every hole just created!
Nevertheless, the Axis had been carefully husbanding a hodgepodge of misfit units in their Strategic Reserve (which also included one full-strength Panzer Corps). When assessed in the cool light of reflection, there was one correct path: unleash their Blitzkrieg! card! With renewed fury, the Axis created a stunning series of counterattacks! The rebuked Soviets’ casualties mounted in numbers not seen since Operation Barbarossa.
Again, the two giants, battered and punch drunk, squared off to see if the Soviets could reclaim sufficient momentum that summer. Limiting their next objectives in scope to something more manageable with what remained of the Red Army, the Soviets set their sights on Kharkov and Stalino to provide the stepping stones needed for an advance to the Dnieper River….
Final Thoughts: What Have We Learned?
Inclement Weather: Experience has taught these players that inclement weather can be really terrible and Mud is the worst of all. The long, long spring ’43 thaw saw repeated turns of Mud which allowed both sides to build up troops and planes to the point that, the instant the weather cleared, they lunged at each other’s forces with renewed ferocity. Their advice is that, unless you are looking for a lot of attrition and your targets are few, avoid inclement weather campaigns. Sometimes you must make them, but be prepared to pay a higher butcher’s bill and have less to show for it.
Reserves and Front Line Attenuation: In this game, the Soviets have made far better use of Reserves than the Axis, but you could reasonably attribute that to a Soviet plan. You see, the front line is much longer than it was historically, and while the Soviets can slice their cheese thinner and spread it over a longer line fairly easily, this is not so for the Axis! Hitler was obsessed with “putting more pins on the map” (creating more crappy units instead of bolstering depleted good ones); in this game, with the Axis confronting that long line, they really did need more pins on the map! Matters reached a point where the Axis were building some of their 2-4/4-4 (worst) Infantry Corps out of their Force Pool just to have more “pins” to cover their expanding front. Consequently, except when planning to play their Refit & Reorganize card (which they did, twice to this point, for maximum effect), of necessity the Axis’ cupboard was usually bare. Their long, thin line has been a real problem for the Axis!
The strategic reserves system is undergoing fresh simplification playtesting at the time of this posting. Gone are "defensive reserves," while "offensive reserves" will simply reside on functioning HQs in that Theater and be able to "pop out" from any other. We are trying to reduce the rules weight and player aid footprint.
Up in the Air: Both sides have been diligent about keeping their Air Forces as well-stocked and up-to-date as possible. Only recently have Soviet Air Upgrades stopped due to their desperate need for Equipment Points (EPs) to feed armor into the front lines. For their part, the Axis has made big sacrifices re-purchasing withdrawn Air units (this is no longer permitted in the ETO version of the rules; an upgrade removes from play the old Air unit) to help sustain their numbers in the sky. For both sides, this has seemed a sound approach with the skies greatly contested in 1943, but the drumbeat of Soviet Ground Attack Fighters is relentlessly shifting the Battle odds more and more in Russia’s favor.
Pictured here is what the Air Display looked like when the turn ended. Considering both side’s Air Forces began the turn completely fresh and fit, you can see that a lot of vicious fighting in the skies had just taken place.
Both sides took their lumps, certainly, and Airfields Attack Missions to suppress enemy Air units were clearly an important order of business.
Respect: Another important lesson to impart is respect. You need to have some respect for what the enemy can do to you on their turn! We have seen so many swings and roundabouts occur using this ETO game system that we are constantly amazed. We find ourselves falling into our old wargaming habits about being solely on the attack or defense. In this Frank Chadwick design, it is all about counterattacks and punishing your opponent for daring to break through your lines!
As you saw during this single sample game turn (June I, ’43), situations can change very quickly – particularly if you advance blithely and do not respect the enemy’s ability to hurl the dice in anger and extract their pound of cardboard! Wargaming’s usual one-sided relationships between the player on the strategic offensive and the opponent on the strategic defense have lost their rigid hold in ETO. Thus, your Regular Movement Phase is not always for exploiting breakthroughs as far as you can, but for preparing to receive whatever deviltry your opponent has in store for you! So always look to your enemy’s HQ placements, Reserves, and whether they’re holding any cards up their sleeve because all of those can leave huge teeth marks in your derrière subsequent to your bold manoeuvre.
Luck: There is no doubt that the pagan gods of war roll dice and play wargames. The Soviets were doomed under a long run of Axis luck all the way through 1941 right up to the tipping point at the height of 1942. It was then, at last, that Axis luck failed them in their drive on Voronezh. What should have been a breakthrough point became the Verdun of the Russian Front and Axis efforts to open the line elsewhere failed to make meaningful gains.
In Thunder in the East, each year is about 40 turns long and, per the Law of Large Numbers (the more time you test for probability the more the aggregate conforms to the mean – in other words, luck averages out over the long haul), you think to yourself that “it will all even out.” There are very few “big” die rolls in ETO. Weather, certainly, but little else in Thunder in the East demands such a “big” die roll short of an Axis ally’s collapse. Instead, you have plenty of “average” die rolls, but occasionally some produce a spectacular opportunity (such as Breakthroughs, Stalemates, Overruns being stopped, or Air units killed). A die-rolling streak generating such opportunities is what players covet and, over time, we have learned that you will see these for both sides. Napoleon was correct when he defined luck as the meeting of preparation and opportunity; so how prepared will you be when the opportunity (for good or ill) presents itself? Playing the ETO series games will tell you the answer!
Reality Checks: For a “grown-up” Battle for Moscow introductory wargame that began as a large “Panzer pusher” and evolved into the Frank Chadwick’s ETO series, the Thunder in the East Campaign Game does a very good job reflecting key realities of the Eastern Front:
Offensives must be well-prepared to succeed. There is a strategic and operational art to building up for the attack, sustaining it (should it succeed), and disguising where your blow will land. Preparing combined arms (i.e., employing Heavy units and red-bolt Air support) can be, with a little luck, a tremendous force multiplier, but even that can be a secondary achievement to actually surprising your opponent and landing your blow where it is least expected and can be least resisted (i.e., where the enemy's line is unbalanced to your advantage). Remember, the follow-up is as important as the initial attack! How well have you planned this campaign?
Your operational objectives should include capturing (or at least cutting off) the defender’s local HQ marker(s). Doing this paralyzes their ability to counterattack effectively and assures your offensive’s success. In addition, if you force it to dissolve and relocate, you will capture a Fuel Point, which is always a welcome addition! Besides, you can almost read the crawl-line of expletives moving across your opponent’s face as you forcibly relocate their HQ marker elsewhere -- and that is a priceless moment to savor.
An overambitious advance sets itself up to suffer casualties far out of proportion to the defender’s losses. Your opponent would be playing very poorly indeed to just “sit there and take it” after you advance forces into their positions. The first thing they will do on their turn is look for places to punish your advancing forces – your units that just advanced into a potential killing zone are always a priority target! The truth is that your ETO game map rests upon a Lazy Susan, and you and your opponent are constantly struggling to turn the table on each other!
Mobile forces are critical for halting enemy offensives. Because Leg units in Enemy Zones of Control (EZOCs) cannot move during their Special Movement Phase (i.e., prior to combat when setting up your Battles), you can only rely on available Mobile units (or Leg units off the front line) to rush to the danger points and deliver immediate stinging counterattacks. Almost always, it is effective counterattacking that stops an enemy advance.
Aggressive, deep-penetrating offensive operations are ill-advised without air superiority. The addendum here is that red bolts (for Defensive Air Support) can be the saviors of your exposed advancing units. If your enemy can muster sufficient airpower to break up your headlong advances, they will headlong their way right into your Force Pool (as eliminated units). It is the purpose of airpower to open up your “possibility space” on the map and restrict your opponent’s when the front line ruptures and matters become free-wheeling. Reports of Air unit availability are just as critical as weather reports if you wish to peer into the crystal ball of a breakout’s future.
Air supremacy, or even superiority, is not automatically gifted to the Axis each turn in late 1941 and throughout 1942. The Soviet Air Force is large, brutish, and ugly – slow to rise and not nearly as effective in the skies as their Axis counterparts. However, there are, eventually, a lot of them and, when assembled in large numbers (typically over two or three turns), the Axis must make room for them to have their say before they retire and recuperate. In much the same way that “sharks gotta swim,” the Soviet Air Force has “gotta fly;” whether doing so as a fraction of itself every turn and lobbing penny-packets here and there, or building up into a massive caveman’s club to wield “Bam Bam!” from the skies, the Axis player must remain constantly mindful of it. The Axis can never discount the Soviet Air Force!
A current assessment of Soviet Air unit capabilities is vital to the Axis. As a corollary to #6 (above), the Axis player must watch for Soviet Air units building up in the Available box and be prepared when they do. The Soviet Air Force might not be a constant concern (especially early on), but when you see it massing up in the Air Unit Display’s Available box, brace yourself for something bad to happen! Major Soviet air offensives (with or without their Air Offensive card) can, depending on how the die rolls break, be devastating. An unchecked Soviet ability to provide Close Air Support, even for a single turn, gives the Soviet Shock and Guards Army units a very powerful one-two punch!
Prepared defenses can be formidable. Of course, your opponent will always search for stratagems and/or tools to wear down or outmaneuver your strong defensive locations, but that usually means they are making a considerable investment of time and tools to do so. However, you can’t be strong everywhere , and by making one place stronger at the expense of another, you are inviting your opponent to attack your weaker position. So ask yourself, would you prefer they hit you at that weaker position (and if not, why didn’t you strengthen it instead)?
We hope you have enjoyed this four part series on such an interesting single game turn of Thunder in the East and found things instructive. We will see you at the game tables!
– Alan and Jeff