Friday 21 September 2018

Panzer - and a tale of two tank platoons

Panzer is a detailed WWII tactical game published by GMT, hexes represent 100 metres of ground and counters represent individual tanks.

This post takes a slice of action to create a fictional insight into the experiences of two quite different tank platoons, one German, the other Soviet, that find themselves fighting for the same objective on a battlefield in late 1943.

The differences between the men’s training and their machines will hopefully come through as this system delights in such things and some aspects of the system will also get to be discussed.

please use the ‘read more’ tab for the rest of this post.

All references to places, characters and actions are fictional and any similarity to real world stuff is unintentional. The game would not normally operate with just two single platoons facing each other, usually a side would have at least one under-strength company, plus relevant support, but for the sake of this report, we have what we have!

It is late 1943 and the ravages of the German Citadel (Kursk) offensive and the subsequent Soviet counter-offensive have significantly reduced the strengths of both armies. Casualties have been heavy and as replacements start to feed into the depleted tank units, the new recruits must quickly learn their craft if they are to survive the initiation of battle.

Mladshiy Leytenant (Junior Lieutenant) Ivan Sokolov is a platoon commander by virtue of the fact that he has survived battle since mid July and is considered very experienced, indeed his driver and himself are the only survivors of the original platoon, which has just been brought up to strength of three tanks with the addition of two young crews who have completed their training at the Kurgan Tank School. The two new tanks are commanded by Aleksandr Smirnov and Maxim Popov.

Even at this stage of the war, Soviet tanker training is somewhat comparatively rudimentary, with each crew member only being trained in their specific role, such as driver or radio operator and the resulting lack of awareness in the roles of their fellow tankers puts them at a disadvantage to the Germans who were trained in doing each others jobs. Gunnery was a particularly weak area in Soviet training with perhaps just a few shells being fired off before being certified as ‘trained’ and being shipped off to the front line with their new tanks.

This platoon is part of an assault brigade and is equipped with the heavy KV-1S, a design perhaps  showing its age compared to the more versatile, cheaper and newer ‘D’ models of the T-34, but its thick frontal turret armour could still be a challenge for German medium tanks. For the sake of this scenario, despite two of the replacement tank crews being ‘green’, we will class the unit as being Regulars  (1 class higher) due to Ivan Sokolov’s own capability and experience, but if he is lost in battle, the formation status will immediately drop to green.

Oberleutnant (1st Lieutenant) Otto Müller has been a platoon commander for thirteen months and for much of that time has been in continual action, the only break coming from a short period of leave and a battalion re-fit in May. His rank was gained following 12 weeks of infantry training, followed by 4 further months of tank training.

His platoon is somewhat depleted from recent fighting, now having just three operative PzIVG tanks. Two of his tanks, including his own (the other commanded by Gerhard Schmidt), have old and tested crews, but the third vehicle (commanded by Herbert Schneider) has a young crew that has only been in action for around five weeks. Schneider’s crew trained for several months at the Panzertruppenschule II at Wünsdorf in Germany and were then transferred to a reserve battalion for further training in gunnery and manoeuvres.

They were posted to Otto Müller’s platoon as well rounded tankers and have performed to Otto's approval in the recent fighting. Overall the platoon maintains a high confidence in their own abilities, though they are becoming increasingly aware that their kit is in need of an upgrade to the new PzIVH model that has started to appear in greater numbers amongst front-line units. Never-the-less, this platoon is considered veteran.

In this small corner of the ferocious east front, three days of intense fighting has seen both sides settle to consolidate their positions, while reinforcements and resupply are organised, though at the local level, commanders are still probing in force to secure avenues of approach that will be essential when the fighting re-starts. The heavy autumn rains are just days away and so hard crossing points over a local stream need to be captured in anticipation of the area soon becoming a muddy quagmire.  One of these bridges sits just 300 metres away from village of Kurhva and both sides want it.

It is 0915 hours on Sunday 3rd October 1943 and Ivan Sokolov’s newly arrived KV platoon have entered woods that are local to the bridge. They will take up defensive firing positions at the woods edge, while waiting for assault guns and infantry to move up to this staging area for the planned attack on the bridge and town at 1100 hours.

Otto Müller’s platoon have orders to take the high ground (Hill A.14) that overlooks both the town and the bridge. He is following a dry earth trail that will take his unit through a short 400 metre depression behind the hill to conceal his movement. The rest of his company is expected within the hour. They will then support an assault against the town headed by two companies of panzer grenadiers.  

Smirnov and Popov will not act on their own initiative and so need to be right next to their commander, Ivan Sokolov, so that he can direct them. Müller’s better trained platoon have more latitude and can operate in a looser formation across a 200 metre front.

[notes - The Regular Soviet formation of 3 vehicles will only get one order and this must be shared between all three vehicles, worse, they must all be in the same hex to do that as the command range for regulars is zero. In contrast, the Veteran German formation of 3 vehicles will get two orders, so one tank will be able to operate separately from the other two. Additionally, the pair of tanks that share an order can be in adjacent hexes to each other, rather than having to be stacked together as their command range for a shared order is 1 hex].

The ever watchful Sokolov quickly scans the ground ahead of him, he has not seen any movement in the past five minutes and believes the immediate area to be free of enemy troops. He orders his platoon to try and find hull down positions within the woods. Aleksandr Smirnov is lucky and immediately finds a perfect dip in the ground that drops his tank some four foot lower, totally shielding the hull.

Müller’s platoon travels down a trackway leading towards the rear of Hill A.14.

[notes - some terrain types allow units to search within the hex, in the hope of finding hull down positions. This is reflecting that within a hex, there may be several places that either by a dip in the ground or fallen trees etc, offer a hull down position. In a woods hex, there is a basic 30% chance of a vehicle finding such a position and searching counts as movement. If a unit secures a hull down position, then some hits on the vehicle may be ignored (depending on whether full or partial hull down positions have been found)].

Popov and Sokolov have not been so fortunate in finding hull down positions, but not wanting further delay in preparing themselves, Sokolov is satisfied that their position amongst the trees is pretty good. He orders the platoon to put an armour piercing round ‘in the spout’ and await targets of opportunity. They will fire upon the first spotting of enemy activity.

Müller’s platoon, still out of sight of the KV platoon, has reached the base of the hill and starts to climb the reverse slope.

[notes - Units are given orders at the start of each turn, these can be move, fire, halt/fire, overwatch and no activity. The overwatch order that Sokolov has chosen is useful as it allows his tanks to interrupt enemy movement and fire on the moving target, it also allows units to fire at the end of the Direct Fire Phase at any enemy units that have fired].

Müller’s tanks move towards the crown of the hill and as Herbert Schneider’s lead tank reaches the top and comes into Sokolov’s view, the Soviet commander orders his platoon to fire.

[note - the single overwatch order given to Sokolov’s stack means that the order is spent as soon as fire is declared, so all the vehicles subject of the shared order should fire together since any that don’t will lose their ability to act this turn. Also their command limitation of being in one hex limits the targets that they can select to also being in one hex, the targeting capability becomes a sort of mirror image of their own command range limitation].

[note - since this German tank is only just moving into vision, we will check to make sure it has been spotted. Normal spotting range for a vehicle in the open is 20 hexes, this increases to 40 hexes for anything moving. Since the target is just 6 hexes away it is instantly spotted - in reality, once you have played the game you would know this and not need to check].

Sokolov fires first followed by Popov and then Smirnov. There are curses, mainly from Sokolov as nobody hits the vehicle and they have revealed their position. Things are about to become very dangerous.

[note - The range to Schneider’s tank is just 6 hexes, this is a short range shot for the KV-1S and there is a base 70% chance of a hit, this is modified downwards on the To Hit Table because the target is moving to 56% and down further to 49% because of the shooter’s ‘regular’ status and then downwards again to 42% for using overwatch fire].

Müller and Schmidt follow Schneider onto the high ground and join him in the same hex, positioning themselves to fire down into the woods. Both sides are now in full sight of each other for the inevitable gun duel to start. Both platoon commanders issue fire orders and it is of critical importance who is the first to get into action.

[notes - each turn after orders have been issued, initiative must be determined. The winner chooses which player should fire first, but whoever fires first moves second. In this case, firing first is the only thing that matters, both sides roll D100, the highest scorer gets the initiative. Because Sokolov’s platoon is counted as being regular (due to this being the first action of Popov and Smirnov), their initiative dice roll is modified by -20, while the veteran Germans will modify their roll by +20. Baring some nasty surprises, in this engagement, the Germans can be expected to gain the initiative most of the time].

Müller’s gun is already laid onto Sokolov’s tank and in the blink of an eye, the gun screeches as the first 75mm shell leaves the barrel, striking the target’s hull and instantly destroying the platoon leaders vehicle. The seconds between that and the next shot seemed like an age as Sokolov’s young comrades freeze with fear.  

[note - As the Panzer IV is on a level 2 hill, it is higher than the KV’s in the woods and so its fire is classed as falling fire, which makes the defending armour slightly less effective. Of course return Soviet fire, to the top of the hill, will be classed as rising fire and will have an opposite effect - that is, the German armour will be slightly more effective. we are only taking a point or two, but that can matter when penetration / armour values are very close].

Schmidt fires, having identified the outline of Maxim Popov’s KV, but he misses. Schneider gets a bead on Smirnov and fires AP .. another disappointing miss.

With the loss of their leader and new found mentor, Popov and Smirnov’s nerves are tested to the full. It is one of those moments in battle when true mettle will show through. Popov responded by barking orders at his crew to Fire, but Smirnov looked visibly shaken and his crew felt that fear.

[notes - the optional rules provide a morale system, which causes units to take morale checks when in stressful situations once their formation have taken enough casualties to cause their Cohesion Point to be reached. Normally formations would be much larger than in our example, but to show the rule, I have set the cohesion level to the first loss, so here, both Popov and Smirnov had to take morale checks when they lost their leader and then were fired upon. To make matter much worse, their Force Grade status has now dropped from Regular to Green, a player could be forgiven for seeing only doom ahead!].

Popov’s confidence to just get things going, delivered a shell right on the nose of Schmidts turret, an easy penetration and kill.

The two Soviet tanks do not slow for a second and continue to fire into the panzer’s position.

[notes - when initiative was rolled this time, the Soviets got the best score possible ... 100% - winning the initiative and choosing to fire first - the Germans have just got their nasty surprise!].

Popov targets Müller, getting a hit and though only damaging the tank, it was too close for Müller’s crew’s comfort and they bail from the tank, abandoning it. Smirnov fires at Schneider and despite his frazzled state, he also gets a hit, but does not cause any significant damage, however, yet again, it is enough to cause this German crew to also bail from their tank, no doubt taking a lead from ‘Lucky!’ Müller’s quick exit.

[notes - As Smirnov had failed his morale test by a large margin, he is counted as being broken. One of the effects is that this is that when firing, the chance to hit is reduced by 5 levels on the To Hit Table, in this instance, bringing down a 70% chance of a hit to a 20% chance, but he still manages to do it].

The short gun duel is over, both sides have a vehicle knocked out and the Germans have abandoned their two other tanks, one of them damaged. The two Soviet newbie tank commanders can't believe that they had survived the engagement and that it was all over .... for now! This twist in events took me by surprise too and I like that the system can do that.

There were further potential nuances that we did not get to see. The Germans had also met their Cohesion Points value through loss, so after being fired upon, they too would have taken morale tests, had they not bailed, so who knows how that would have gone.

We didn’t really get a chance to see the problems that the PzIV’s would have faced with Smirnov’s hull down tank. When Schneider fired at Smirnov he missed and at that time in the narrative, I had not had the Germans identify that they were up against KV’s. The significance being that with hull hits negated from the Hull Down position, only turret shots would count, but the ordinary PzIV AP will not penetrate the KV-1s turret at this range, so they would had had to switch over to APCR rounds, which need their availability to be diced for and this would have brought a good deal of uncertainty to this little action.

The Soviets getting the initiative was indeed a very lucky moment for them as further loss was likely had the Germans been able to fire first and so here we are, Smirnov and Popov have survived their first action, they are perhaps a little less green.

I was reading an account about recruits to T-34 units and that first engagement would see most of the day’s losses actually come from the ranks of the new recruits, those that survived learned enough that day to have a more equal chance with the seasoned tankers in the platoon of continuing to survive.

We didn’t really get a chance to explore the command aspect through orders as both sides had a single stack and once in place the imperative became to fire at the others stack, so their was little scope for imaginative or demanding tactics, this of course would naturally follow with more units on the map and their inter-relationship with the terrain.

Finally, we did not get to see the effect of smoke. If a penetrated vehicle Brews Up, rather than just simply being Knocked Out, then it will smoke and that smoke will reduce ‘to hit’ chances whenever a ‘smoked’ hex is fired from / into or through. So having a friendly tank brew-up in your hex, will give you some cover, but it will also impeded your own fire and sometimes it is better to move to another hex, even with the dangers that that can bring.

With the engagement over, Smirnov’s crew will get chance to recover their nerve before the planned assault over the bridge starts. How the battle for Kurhva might unfold is a story to be told another time. As I was writing it, it sounded a possibly interesting action, so I think I will pursue it, with the casualties from the above action carried over, though would I let Müller recover the two abandoned tanks (remembering that one is damaged anyway) - Hmm, one to think about, I’m sure a special rule would add some twists of interest.

Resource Section.
COMMANDERS is my sister web space and it is a bit less article based than here. LINK.

A recent post looking at the introductory scenario and sequence of play. LINK.