Sunday, 30 August 2020

Kasserine Pass

I was casting around for a manouvre type scenario for Panzergruppe (as opposed to a high intensity slog like Operation Goodwood) and I was inspired by Rick Atkinsons 'An Army at Dawn' to have a look at running a Kasserine Pass game. I wanted to cover the joint battles or Kasserine and Sidi Bou Zid as they were low density and fairly high on manouvre, with only half a dozen divisions engaged in quite a large geographical area.

I'd already beefed up my US force with a view to Tunisia (hence those Zvezda M3 Lees) and I'd also acquired some Italian M13s and a nice Valentine originally intended for Soviet use. My German stuff was in a range of colours anyway, and it was fairly easy to repaint a few of my late war German infantry in caps to stand in for Afrika Korps types.

The map was a bit of a challenge as it covers a huge area all the way from Maknassy and Faid Pass in the Eastern Dorsal up Tebessa which is well on the way to Algeria. In the end I did a bit of scale compression, with a ground scale of one hex per 15km and each turn being roughly a day, but ran it as 10km per hex. It is also quite complex, being cut up with mountains and deep wadis.

The map is on its side, so North is to the left. I was hoping to avoid loads of roads, but they were a key feature of the campaign as the offroad going was so bad during the campaign (either thick mud or mountains). Rommel later reflected that if he'd realised how bad the cross country going was, he would have done something different, and the US lost an entire motorised battalion, literally just stuck in the mud.

The action starts on 14th Feb 1943 with units of 1st and 34th Infantry Divs and 1st Armored Div scattered all over southern Tunisa under the command of Fredendalls IInd US Corps. The Germans had already captured in the Faid and Fondouk passes in earlier attacks and now things were quiet, perhaps too quiet....

Historically the battle ran in two phases, the initial attacks to capture the major valley between the mountains (the Battle of Sidi Bou Zid), then a brief pause, before DAK pressed on up the mountain passes to try and isolate the Allied armies in Tunisa (Battle of Kasserine Pass). I decided to run them both together as operationally they were essentially one continuous operation.

I had five players for this one (although Jerry could only join us for Wednesday). Tim C and John took the US forces with John also playing first Fredendall and later Alexander. John ran 34th ID (the Red Bulls) and 26th Armoured Brigade, while Tim had the Big Red One and Old Ironsides.

Simon had 10th Panzer Div with its attached Tiger battalion, Jerry had Centauro, and Tim G ran 21st Panzer Div and also took on the role of Rommel.

The table from the south. 10th Panzer is massed at Faid Pass, and 21st Panzer north of Maknassy. The bulk of 34th ID and 1st AD are on the right around Sbeitla, while two regiments of 1st ID are around Gafsa on the left.

21st Panzer Div, accompanied by Rommel. I decided to use 15mm stuff for this as the unit density is quite low. 21st Panzer only has a single infantry regiment, but has a lot of divisional assets. The whole division is rated as veteran, which makes them quite scary.

10th Panzer, accompanied by 501 Tiger Bn. 10th Panzer has a more normal establishment with two PG regiments. These chaps are veterans too.

Two Combat Commands from 1st AD cover Sbeitla from the east and south. At the base of Faid Pass is an unfortunate RCT from 34th ID, unaware that an entire panzer division is about to drive over them. There is a supply dump in Sbeitla.  

Fedendalls HQ back in Tebessa, along with a reserve RCT from 1st ID.

The Allied airforce! The Axis had local air superiority for the first few days of the operation as the Allies were busy attacking the supply lines back to Sicily.

1st ID dug in defending Gafsa. There had been see-saw fighting here over the winter. Zbv 288 Afrika is dug in down the road to Maknassy.

The action opened with 10th Panzer supported by Stukas attacking the RCT bellow Faid Pass. irl 21st Panzer joined in this attack, but Rommel in this game decided on a rapid deployment over to Gafsa. Unsurprisingly the RCT took heavy losses and fell back towards Sbeitla. irl it was surrounded and overrun.

21st Panzer completed its road move of 75km to Gafsa, but didn't have enough movement left for an attack that day. It was joined by Zbv 288. The Germans chose to keep Centauro in reserve as they only had limited supplies for the offensive.

1st AD moved its combat commands up to block 10th Panzer, while the shattered US infantry fell back to Sbeitla to reorganise.

The next day was overcast which restricted air power but the Stukas were still active. 1st ID has moved its other RCT over to cover the road from Maknassy, but it hasn't had time to dig in yet. 21st Panzer launched a massed assault over the wadi with the Luftwaffe in support.

Rommel secured a tactical victory and the US infantry fell back northwards up the road, pursued by the panzers. DAK had taken some losses forcing th crossing.

10th Panzer meanwhile attacked the Combat Command on the crossroads south of Sbeitla. This also scored a tactical victory and the US tankers fell back all the way to Kasserine to reorganise but not before inflicting some hits on the panzers (each Combat Command has tanks, armored infantry. artillery and tank destroyers).

The panzer regiment occupied the crossroads but left its infantry behind. The third US Combat Command arrived and the US tankers responded with a counterattack!

To everyones amazement, the US scored a marginal victory and pushed the Germans back!! Silver Stars all around. It was fairly bloody with both sides taking hits, and the Stuarts and Lees declined to follow up. One of the US victory conditions was to win at least one battle with purely US forces, so well done Tim C and Old Ironsides for pulling it off. 

Rommel decided it was time to bring on the Italians. Centauro came on via the newly captured Gafsa and set off up the road towards Sbeitla. The M13 was bought specifically for this game. The Bersaglieri motorcylists might actually be Germans. Ahem.

10th Panzer halted to reorganise after its tactical setback. The US took the opportunity to break contact and fall back to Sbeitla. There was now a 20km gap between the major combat units in this sector, with Nomansland just occupied by patrols.

The 34th ID troops around Sbeitla frantically dug in and brought up reinforcements. The third RCT from 34th ID occupied Kasserine.

With things looking a bit dicey, the Allies committed more aircraft for tactical support and achieved air parity.  In the distance, the weakened 1st ID RCTs are digging in to cover the airfield at Feriana, while 21st Panzer regroups. 

US B-25s have an eagles eye view of the battlefield. 

An RCT from 1st ID and and engineer regiment are dug in on the road to Tebessa above Feriana, looking down over the plain. The supply dump at Feriana is burning.

One of the Combat Commands is refitting in Kasserine Pass and has been joined by Valentines from 26th Armoured Brigade.

General Alexander has joined Fredendall in Tebessa.

21st Panzer is massing up the road from Gafsa.

As Centauro arrives to reinforce 10th Panzer, the whole Axis front pushes up 20km and makes contact around Sbeitla. The force ratio isn't looking too good here for the Allies.

21st Panzer makes a maximum effort attack towards Feriana, and the Allies throw in their bombers.

Despite the Allied air support, the Germans overrun the first US line of defence with Rommel personqlly leading the panzer regiment, and then crash into Feriana, wiping out the defenders there too. Disaster! Two RCTs from 1st ID have been obliterated. It turns out the supply dump wasn't quite as demolished as the Allies hoped and DAK replenishes itself. Rommel is on a roll.

The main German attack at Sbeitla focusses on the US armour,andit is forced back up the road to Sbiba. Centauro sets off in pursuit to keep up the pressure.

Sbeitla is now surrounded on four sides, but the 34th ID decide to hang on.

21st Panzer regroups and reorganises around Feriana, while 26th Armoured Brigade moves its tanks down to Kasserine.  Is the front firming up here?

The US tankers are relieved by British tankers from 26th Armoured Bde, who face off against Centauros armoured regiment. The battered US armor withdraws to reorganise.

More British reinforcements arrive, this time in the form of 'Vicforce' from 1st Armoured Division, which makes use of the road network to get into position behind the remains of The Big Red One.

The weather turns, which grounds all the aircraft, and 21st Panzer attacks Kasserine without any Stukas. The Germans achieve a minor victory but the entrenched defenders choose to stand, taking additional losses but stopping the Germans. Kasserine holds! Has Rommel met his match? (historically the Valentines were destroyed conducting a lengthy delaying action back up the pass to Thala) 

10th Panzer and Centauro conduct a concentric attack on Sbeitla and capture the town. The survivors from 34th ID don't have any option but to fall back cross country, but the bad going precludes a German follow up. If the Axis had surrounded the town, they would have completely destroyed the defenders..... In all the excitement the US forgo to demolish the supply dump, and very welcome supplies fall into the hands of the Afrika Korps. The Tigers and a panzegrenadier regiment exploit to the demolished bridge outside Kasserine.

Centauro faces off against 26th Armoured Brigade. Neither side seems inclined to attack the other, so this part of the front quietens down.

The Germans launch a massive concentric attack against Kasserine. Bad weather has still grounded all the air, but the ground forces are more than enough to score a tactical victory and the defenders of the town go into the bag. Even worse 21st Panzer exploits up the road and overruns the remains of 34th ID who were retreating from Sbeitla. The whole 34th ID has now been rendered ineffective.

As 21st Panzer drives up Kasserine Pass, it encounters the bulk of 1st Armored Div, now largely reorganised and blocking the way. Behind them, Vicforce has redeployed and dug in on the road to Tebessa. Despite capturing the extra supplies at Sbeitla and Feriana, DAK only has one day of full supply left, and Rommel realises that he isn't going to make it off the north table edge before his supplies run out, and calls it a day.  

The road to Sbiba is still held by 26th Armoured Brigade.

10th Panzer is still a powerful force, and could perhaps carry the offensive on its own for a couple more days, but with the advantage of interior lines, the allies can move to block them.

The 1st ID defenders on the mountain look down on the vast Axis traffic jam in the muddy valley, and realise that they are going to live to fight another day. 

And back at Tebessa, Alexander sends a congratulatory message to the troops.

Well that was a close run thing. The Germans inflicted far heavier losses than their historical counterparts, but the Allies held them far further south (irl the final battles were well into the mountain passes in the Western Dorsal). The Germans achieved as much as Rommel did, which is saying something, and the idea that the DAK could ever have actually driven to the coast and cut off the entire Allied army was always a bit dubious. The US armor acquitted itself magnificently,and 34th ID fought with great determination. The prize for rapid movement however goes to Centauro, who covered more ground in less time than any other division.

The Germans seemed a bit put off by a couple of minor reverses and perhaps didn't realise how great their local superiority was. They still managed to push the front forward 80km in eight days, which given the bad going and being considerably outnumbered by the Allies, was quite an achievement.

irl, after the battle  Fredendall was sent back the USA for a training assignment, and his Corps was taken over by Patton. 


Sunday, 23 August 2020

Thats the way to do it... WW2 training films

Whilst hanging around on re-enactment social media pages, a kindly soul pointed out an interesting WW2 British training film covering platoon attacks. While the 1944 version has been endlessly reproduced in books, this one is from an earlier period (from the equipment, I guess 1942).

I particularly enjoyed each platoon member explaining their equipment and role. It is worth watching just for the accents alone. It covers a platoon attack against a German MG position, and very helpfully includes map briefings and a blow-by-blow account of how the action unfolds.

It would be very reproduceable on the tabletop, and another interesting scenario to test the veracity of tactical rules.

In a similar vein, I came across this:

which is about the selection of NCOs (plus some field activity). It is from later in the war as they have No. 4 rifles and lightweight respirators. It has more of a narrative structure and in some ways reminds me of the ourstanding David Niven film 'The Way Ahead' as the various characters and their development are explored. So which of the putative NCOs are you?

Both are pleasant way to pass half an hour and highly recommended.

Wednesday, 19 August 2020

OP Alpha

This was another NBC game set in our fictional 1981 WW3. Tim put on this particular scenario, which was the prequel to his Plugging the Gap game. In an alarming role reversal, I was allocated to play the wicked capitalists. Blimey! Even worse, it was 11ACR covering the Fulda Gap, so I had to delay a Tank Army with a few squadrons of Sheridens. Oh well, I did say in the commentary for the Fulda Gap game that NATO tactics are all very well in theory but very hard to pull off in practice, so lets see how badly I can mess this up.

Simon was allocated the Heimatschutzen, so all they have to do is hunker down in the villages with their panzerfausts, just like 1945 all over again. They did have a few dodgy panzers arriving later, our only mobile reserve (so also just  like 1945).

The area of operations looked like this. This map was Tims first outing with Mapping Board, and it turned out very well. The Russians were coming from the east and northeast.

The terrain favoured a mobile defence in the north, but there wasn't anywhere to run in the south.

Simon and I had a Zoom staff conference and I plotted potential locations of our units with old Command and Colours blocks. In the end we went for an arc of dug in Volkssturm, sorry 'Heimatschutzen' as they call them these days, with interlocked ZOCs, and the Sheridens and ACAVs in  line behind with interlocked fields of fire. Further south where the border was closer I committed a full combat team with minefields closing off the gaps around the forest. If the Russians came that way there was only one position to stop them, and if they didn't, then they could be another mobile reserve.

Up north the plan was to fall back to successive positions while attriting the Russians with long range missile fire, artillery and airstrikes. That worked so well for the US in the last game... At least the US had loads of air defence, including a Hawk battery. Ooh, shiny.

OK, plan in place, troops deployed, now it was time to make the world safe for Coca Cola, jeans and Bruce Springsteen. I wasn't sure what hat to wear for this one, as unlike Tim, I don't own a US Cavalry hat. I do however have an M1 helmet, a jeep cap and a US mountain troops cap. Mountain hat it was, I also found this great image to use as a Skype backdrop.

The Russians were played by John, Richard and Tim C. I didn't get as many photos for this one but I'll try and keep up with the narrative.

There were some puzzling things going on in Grosentaft. Civilians were fleeing the war zone, but the traffic jams here seemed beyond what was expected. Still, it had the nice effect of creating a huge roadblock on the road junction, which was fine by me as it reduced the threat from the northeast.

The action opened with a monumental barrage. Heavy artillery and FROGs rained down. Poor OP Alpha took a number of direct hits and was blown to pieces in short order. The Russians also seemed to have figured out where I'd parked my Sheridens across the Autobahn and they came in for some heavy fire. Fortunately HE isn't very effective against tanks. 

The barrage was followed up with airstrikes, which gave the Hawk gunners something to do. Again, my poor Sheridens were targetted, but the Soviet pilots aim was put off by the AA barrage and they missed.

In the south, Russian engineers moved up on Hill 601 and started to dismantle the frontier defences. I hadn't realised this was an obstacle, but my combat team parked on Hill 528 could see them across the valley and opened fire with missiles, knocking some of the enemy vehicles out.

Things started to hot up in the centre. A Sov recce battalion appeared, and my Sheridens took them under fire at long range, their missiles knocking out a whole company of T64s. The recce fell back in some disorder. This was followed up by a reinforced motor rifle battalion who crashed into the Heimatschutzen holding Rasdorf. The fight was fairly brief and the Germans were overwhelmed.

The Russians rolled on down the Autobahn while my Sheridens sidestepped. Missile fire from tanks and Apaches attrited the Soviets but not enough to stop them and the Russians rolled onwards. The elderly Shillelagh missiles were working very well, backed up by the TOWs from the cavalry troops.

My tanks and M113s took some losses and the US cavalry fell back to the next line behind the tree line. The Russians obligingly came on rolling forwards into my kill sack, crushing the German civilian vehicles under their tracks.

In the nick of time some Apaches rolled up, and fire rained down on the Russians from all sides, isolated from their pals by a blocking barrage landing behind them. It was juts like all those exercises we did. The Russians fell below half strength but their morale still held up. A welcome reinforcement were some elderly German tanks, who parked up in hull down positions on the third line.

It transpired that the Spetznaz were responsible for the traffic jams in Grostadt, and they now tried to attack my Tac HQ! Fortunately my HQ security detail were alert and managed to drive them off.

Back in the south, the Russian engineers were reduced to platoon strength by fire from my Combat Team on Hill 528, but not before they'd opened significant breaches in the wire. Their morale failed and they fell back eastwards.

Evidence of Soviet atrocities! The Russian column rolls over German civilian vehicles. We will ignore the US blocking barrage landing on the Autobahn. Ahem. Well the President did say they were the Evil Empire.

We adjourned for the night and mulled things over. So far the loss ratio had been favourable, we'd lost two German and two US steps (the equivalent of two companies) but routed or destroyed ten steps of Russians, however the Russians were now getting quite close and we were at risk of being overrun in close assault. It would soon be time to fall back to the third line. Simon and I had a brief staff conference to plan out the options.

In the south, I fully expected another Soviet Motor Rifle Regiment to appear over Hill 601. We shall see if I was correct!

The Russian recce cautiously approached Haselstein in the woods. It was held by an entrenched company of Heimatschutzen. Meanwhile my combat team on Hill 528 finished off the Russian engineer battalion who had gapped the border wire.We also finished off the Russian battalion caught in the ambush on the autobahn, which was very helpful as Simon and I had planned a tactical redeployment to out last stand position.

While the next Russian wave poured down the Autobahn, the reserve panzer battalion moved onto Hill 523, and my Sheridans took up hull down positions on Hill 519 to replace them. I also redeployed my Hawk battery and consolidated the ACAV combat team into a single wooded hill hex on Hill 519 with a view to close assaults. We now had a nice defence of interlocked ZOC covering all the approach routes with missile armed tanks positioned to fire from the rear.

The Russians didn't seem too phased by this and pressed on aggressively. Their divisional recce battalion assaulted Haselstein and bitter street fighting got under way. Outnumbered 3:1, all the Germns could do was try and delay the Russians.

The Russian reserves rolled on, an independant tank battalion. No less than four companies of T62s equipped with mine rollers! Fortunately they didn't come over Hill 601, but just piled straight down the Autobahn.

The other Russians waited for the tanks, and air, artillery and missile fire reduced my combat team of ACAVs to half strength, which was a bit unfortunate. I would have been better leaving them spread out.

The Russians then came piling down the main road in strength again, leading with an MR battalion reinforced with a tank company. Airstrikes knocked a hit off the West German M48s.

Air, artillery and missile fire demolished the remains of my ACAV team. Ooops. I should have pulled them out sooner. Delay missions are so hard. The fresh T62 battalion trundled forwards menacingly. The only bright spot was that the Russians were very wary of the defenders dug in around the roadblock in Grostadt, which really channelled their advance and essentially meant our entire right flank was locked down by a single company of Home Guards!

The T62s shied away from the woods and villages, and  piled down the road in a great, green armoured column to support the lead MR battalion. Our defensive fire chipped off a third of the lead Soviet battalion but it wasn't enough to stop them.

The Russians swung right and assaulted the German tanks on Hill 523, and completely obliterated them for no loss. Well, they were only M48s but even so....

To add insult to injury, the T62s got the drop on my Sheridens and rolled over them in a great armoured tide. Although I got a couple of hits, the US tankers were obliterated. With that, it was time to go, with the US Cavalry reduced to a company of ACAVs and a company of Sheridens (plus their AA and artillery batteries) and the Russians held the field apart from the brave Heimatschutzen in Grostadt. Funnily enough in the 'Plugging the Gap' scenario, the US Cavalry were modelled as having just two companies as well, so at least I'd got that right.

That was a really good game, very enjoyable and a good simulation of why NATO tactics are so hard to pull off. We managed a decent delaying action and a couple of good ambushes, and did actually inflict a loss ratio well in excess of 2:1, but once the Russians got close in mass, you just had to run and I left it too late with two of my Combat Teams. Well played to the Russians, their divisional assets were a genuine surprise (I fully expected to be attacked by two MR Regiments), and also congratulations to my heroic German allies who really did fight to the last man in the defence of their homeland.