Kursk Battles (75th Anniversary) - a gaming theme for July.
For my seventh themed game, we are looking at the sixth and final scenario from Lock ‘n Loads Tactical ‘Dark July’ boardgame. For this we switch from the large game map to two standard game boards (supplied), as we move location from the southern to the northern arm of the offensive.
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Background to - Front Porsche
Ponyri, July 13th
On the north side of the Kursk salient, General Model’s Ninth Army pushed south as part of the planned double envelopment. A key objective was the town of Ponyri. The fighting was so intense here that veterans named it Little Stalingrad, as control of buildings went back and forth with each attack and counter-attack. Two buildings that switched hands several times were the Tractor Station and the School. (Scenario design by Mark Walker).
Above, the Soviets defend the left half of the map and the Germans attack from the right. This is a very congested battlefield, with vision mostly down to 100 - 200 metres due to the density of terrain.
This is likely something of a bonus scenario by the original publishers as it is on separate game boards and designed by M. Walker, as opposed to all of the earlier scenarios by J. Cebrian that used that big map. It is certainly a welcomed addition as the fighting at Ponyri is very much part of the Kursk story.
The signature of designer Mark Walker is all over this scenario as it is rammed with a varied order-of-battle for both sides and there are no less than three secret events in the game. I have no idea what those events are and may not even get as far as discovering one or more of them, but as I do, they will not be revealed the detail to the reader, to avoid any spoiler revelations.
There are two large buildings on the map. The Tractor Station at 11 hexes and the School at 6 hexes. Both buildings have two floors, so that hex location number is doubled. If the Germans capture one building it is a tactical victory, and taking both buildings is a super tactical victory (a strange term, but then so is the title of the scenario!). Anything short of that is a Soviet victory. The Germans will be fighting down a board that is only 8 hexes wide, so with the amount of troops in this scenario, the casualty rate is going to be significant and it is difficult to see how things, at least initially, are even going to be able to move across any open space, without getting hurt!
This is the longest of the scenarios here at 9 turns ... will there be anything left by the end of that I wonder!
Soviets - Two stone buildings and a wooden building are added to the map and this together with the Soviets getting a bunker and an emplacement (for a tank), just adds to the sense of ‘fortress’, but this is also a battlefield that they won’t want to be moving around themselves, so setting up with effective cross fires at the start that will survive infiltration will be important. For better or worse, I set up a fairly thick defensive belt up front and keep a couple of squads and the Commissar back, occupying the second building (Tractor Station) in the hope that if there is a German breakthrough, the second building may take too long to clear out.
As for characters, they get Commissar Ilvanich, who will spur desperate defenders on ... or shoot them if they fail him! and Nurse Ladoshkina who will be invaluable in one of the objective buildings as she will be able to help squads recover from shaken status to keep the defence going. During set up, it becomes clear that the density of terrain produces poor fields of vision and that there are not enough infantry to do the defending job properly. If the Germans can exploit any blind spots, the defence with be compromised.
The German side have got plenty of machine guns, plus a satchel charge and a flamethrower, so on the face of it, they have the capacity to carve their way into Soviet positions. The German get more leaders, so they can direct and increase firepower, but will also be useful for rallying shaken troops to maintain assault strength of the force. They have enough good squads with assault / move capability to form a pioneer platoon and these are given the flamethrower, charge and a machine gun.
At the start, the infantry will be held back, out of the way, while the tanks and heavy machine gun deploy to soften up the defences, but only a turn or two can be allocated to this as the job of capturing the large buildings will be a tough task within the time frame allowed. The tanks are centred around the Ferdinand tank destroyer (Elefant), itself making a rare appearance in this system and being an interesting bit of kit with its big gun and very thick armour, though this a vehicle that would be more useful in very open rather than closed terrain. Even so, it still looks pretty fearsome, however in this system, you can just never take anything for granted and it just may not do the business .... or even survive!
They have one character, Lt. Koch, he has the ‘Plough the row’ skill, which allows squads with him to attack two adjacent hexes at the same time, which is going to be most useful when trying to clear the big buildings.
The Russian player gets an off-board Fire Mission, the German player gets two.
Surprisingly, the German infantry did get an early opportunity to move forward, as the tanks and anti-tank guns duelled.
At the school, the artillery spotter, seeing the enemy so closely grouped together, nodded to the radio operator “There will unlikely be a better target, call it in”, but perhaps a bit too much Vodka had been consumed by one or more parties, as the spotting round fell 200 metres away into the emptiness beyond.
The Ferdinand (Elefant) tank destroyer had spotted a a most dangerous foe and raced to get a shot off at the emplaced SU 152 (‘Animal Killer’), but perhaps reflecting the new crews that had arrived with these machines, it only just found its mark, smoking it and having it join the other two burning hulks on the battlefield, a T-34 and a Panzer III.
Sgt. Beck broke cover and took his two squads the 150 metres over open ground towards the Soviet 45mm anti-tank gun. The little gun fired furiously, joined by the heavy machine gun from the upstairs window of the school, but amazingly, the squads made it and easily captured the position - though there now suddenly seemed to be rather a lot enemy rifles pointing in their direction.
A StuG III moved up in support and fleetingly glimpsed a Soviet squad run from the church to the wooden shack next to the assault gun and from there, they swarmed over the vehicle with anti-tank grenades. Not having the luck that such bravery deserves, they did not damage the vehicle and pulled back to the wooden hut.
Groups of Germans started to infiltrate down past the StuG III, strengthening the locality, ready to assault the school from its eastern side (lower part of the map). For Sergeant Gorbatov, stationed on the lower floor of the school, the congregation of so many infantry was too tempting a target and he successfully called in an artillery strike, which ripped through the German ranks and even caused the crew of the StuG to abandon their vehicle and flee. His decisive action brought a halt to the development of the German attack from that side of the building ..... for now!
|The artillery strike hits the hex plus|
all six adjacent hexes.
Nurse Ladoshkina, working on the ground floor of the school heard cries of ‘медик’ from upstairs. She raced to the first floor and found one of the HMG team with face and neck wounds from flying glass. She attended to the cuts, some of them deep and then declared him fit enough to return to his post.
Outside, following the artillery stonk, Private Asier broke away from his section and ran into the school through a side entrance. He took a grazing wound as he threw himself on the floor, already armed with a grenade in each hand. Inspired at seeing someone already entering the school, other squads, including the pioneers pressed harder onto the two storey building. For fear of being overwhelmed the defenders increased the intensity of fire and a lurking sniper, in desperation, took up a dangerous position with the HMG and fired at the team carrying the satchel charges, who instantly went to ground.
A possible turning point in the battle had been reached. German soldiers were occupying the ground floor of the building in increasing numbers, fighting the defiant enemy in a series of dangerous, room to room, close combats. Above them the HMG and sniper, who had little hope of escape, were still trying to hold off additional squads making for the building.
The bunker above the school had been taken, "too easily" Koch remarked. The ground below the school, which had suffered the artillery strike was still German held, but despite pressing the Soviets on three sides, the German assault had become disorganised, with too many troops just pinned in position. Was the assault was starting to stumble?
German teams were now getting into the school in greater numbers, but from the top side of the school, a SU 76 guarded the flank, preventing German access. Koch’s team left the bunker and made for the little SU, but were fought back by the pistol fire from the crew in their open compartment.
Feeling lucky to have deterred the attack, the SU commander decided they had done enough there and reversed back between the wooden buildings, onto the forecourt of the Tractor Station. It was time to surrender the school.
German squads had made it to the upstairs floor and dealt with the HMG and sniper. It was now a case of doing a room-to-room search on both floors to make sure they had full control of the building.
Below the school, the squads with Lt.Plassman and the wounded Sgt. Beck, despite being flamethrower armed, could not get past the wooden hut held by Lt. Smirnoff and life was being made uncomfortable for them by the periodic shelling from an 82mm mortar.
Finally, the Germans secured the school building. In a bizarre little incident, the lumbering Ferdinand (Elefant) tank destroyer, moved around the top of the school, catching sight of the SU 76. The SU fired first and hit the Ferdinand and though not penetrating the thick frontal armour, the jittery crew came close to turning tail and fleeing, had it not been for the level headed Lt. Decker, the vehicle commander, who calmed nerves and got the gunner to return fire, though perhaps nerves had not been calmed enough .... as they missed!
Their second shot rocked the SU as it burst into flames. Now was the time to risk all and push on for the Tractor Station. Koch was the first to step out, the forecourt in front of the building was a killing zone with bullets mortars quickly finding their mark. Casualties rose and the decision was taken that an attack against the Tractor Station would not succeed with the forces at hand, plus, if they were counter-attacked, they would likely lose the school as well, so with some relief to the company, the order came down the line to fall back onto the school and regroup.
This felt the toughest scenario out of the bunch in terms of firepower and close terrain in which each die roll mattered and made the difference between making progress and not. It certainly gives that ‘grinder’ type of game that properly reflects the real battle.
It looks a tall order for the Germans to take the second objective, because to claim control of a building in this system, a player must have been the last side to have occupied all of its hexes. In a building that size, it would take a goodly number of squads, two to three turn to do that.
Anyway, the Germans won a minor victory by taking one of the two buildings and may well have done a little better had they not forgotten to use their two artillery strikes!, though in fairness the German leaders were usually pre-occupied with just keeping the troops moving forward, rather than being free to act as spotters.
You would think the density of the terrain would have been a total nightmare for the attackers and though it pretty much was, at times it worked against the defenders as it created enough blind spots for the Germans to infiltrate forwards without too much risk in some instances.
Three of the game mechanics added a strong influence and feeling to the game. Firstly, we have the initiative at the start of a turn bringing excitement on most turns. On turn 2, which would fire first, the Ferdinand or the SU 152 ...... this time it was the Ferdinand, perhaps a different game would have followed had the latter knocked out the former. Secondly, units can only act once, so there is no final fire etc and if defenders can be drawn to fire, then they can be overwhelmed or given return fire. Thirdly is spotting - units must be spotted to be fired upon, so if the defenders in cover hold their fire, an attacker may be forced to spend time (i.e. activations) making uncertain spotting attempts to reveal their enemy. There is a balance between the spotting rule and the ‘use a unit once per turn’ rule that brings a ton of nuance, narrative and thinking to the game-play.
Finally, I did discover all three hidden events and all I will say here is that they did manage to surprise, entertain and bring some nice narrative to the game.
I have enjoyed the Dark July module. Each scenario was very different, very playable and entertaining. That and the replay-ability of the scenarios will bring me back with this again.
Kursk - The Greatest Battle, Eastern Front 1943 by Lloyd Clark and published by Headline Review.
I have picked this up again and having got through the rather long, slow approach to actually getting to July 1943, we are now there. It is Day One and the first clue that the Soviets pretty much knew the German plan, was the massive disruption barrage that hit the German assembly locations. New to me was the impact of the Soviets failing to incapacitate the Luftwaffe and the importance of ‘on call’ German air support to the advancing elements in what is essentially true Blitzkrieg style.
I enjoy the writing style, so I anticipate the author will bring life and insight to the unfolding campaign. As I am already familiar with the direction of the battle, I get an almost despairing sense that a huge amount of blood and material is about to be lost for no purpose. One of the things I enjoy about these reads, is the insight into those aspects that one side did not know about the other and how decisions based on ‘assumption’ can go so badly wrong (Something that my last read, Beavor’s Arnhem, really highlighted well).
The density of the Soviet defences at Kursk was borne of an incredible mobilisation of people and material, but it is the fact that these superb defences were several belts deep, that to the reader, the futility of knocking down one door, only to be faced by another becomes quickly apparent.
LINK to the previous post that describes the Soviet counter-attack in the south and offers a large tank battle - perhaps the biggest this system has produced. Midday Counter-attack. LINK
COMMANDERS is a sister web space to the blog and being more snippet based will give an easy overview of this months gaming. LINK
The introduction to the Kursk month of Battles - the first post in this series LINK