Yelnia - Zhukov Strikes, 30.8.41

In August 1941, while Guderians Panzers sped south, and Hoth chased shadows in the north, the unfortunate infantry of Army Group Centre were left to hold the front. In particular they held the vital Yelnia salient, which projected across the Desna river pointing at Moscow. Furious counterattacks were launched at Army Group Centre, and none more so than those aimed at the salient, organised by Georgi Zhukov acting as a Stavka 'special representative'. This East Front scenario pits the 102nd Tank Division against the 277th Infanterie Division on a massive map 13km x 28km. Although supposedly historical, no source I can find actually lists the 102nd as being involved, although at least two 'motorised divs' were used, and it is possible that the 102nd was renamed a motorised division in common with other surviving tank divisions. As the burden of attack is greater I shall let the AI play the Germans.

Pre-battle planning

The battlefield is broad but quite shallow, dotted with woods, hills and towns and bisected by the River Ustro. The main Smolensk highway and railroad cross diagonally, and the 102nd is tasked with securing these - objectives being scattered right across the map. The 102nd is virtually a tank armada, deploying some 250 tanks, although the bulk of these are obsolete. It has two tank regiments, each of two light battalions (45 T-26 or BT-7 ea) and one medium battalion (18 T34 and 15 KV-1). Unfortunately for the Russians, these powerful units are sorely lacking in support, they have a single motor rifle regiment (three battalions), a motor engineer battalion, three medium artillery battalions and a recon battalion. To make matters worse one tank, one artillery and one infantry battalion, along with most of the engineers, arrive as reinforcements, starting on turn four. The Red Army tanks, so fearsome against the Panzers, will be faced with digging out entrenched German infantry, almost on their own.

The divisional area is bisected by the marshy river, and the bulk of its strength is on the left (three tank and two infantry battalions vs two tank battalions and a couple of companies on the right). There is little direct contact with the Germans, a few platoon/company outposts are visible. In a battle of this size, some sort of overall plan is required, and it will be important to move up HQs and artillery to maintain the momentum of the advance rather than just getting into a huge furball. The first objective will be to actually find the Germans, and there may be some scope to slip raiding groups of armoured cars or BT-7s through the lines, but basically the tanks will need to be kept fairly clumped to maximise their chances in close assault and to make the most of their battalion and regimental commanders. I shall try to keep the truck mounted infantry bussed up as long as possible, and try to clear the road net so that I can move up artillery and motor infantry once the main German position is identified.

The on-board force will be treated as four groups. Group one will take Sadki, proceed a couple of kms further on and wheel right. Group two will make a much tighter wheeling move east of Sadki. Both groups will try to force the Ustro and open communications with the rest of the division. Groups three and four will make much more limited attacks to try and locate and pin the Germans, basically each tank battalion will push cautiously towards immediate local objectives. All along the front armoured cars will press ahead and try to find weak spots.
 


The initial plan on the left flank

The initial plan on the right flank. The crossover is required to switch the positions of the light and medium tank battalions of 203rd Regiment.

Turns 1-5

This phase is basically recon in force as the combat battalions feel their way forward and drive in German outposts. I find out the hard way that tank-riders are vulnerable to small arms fire, and my limited infantry get whittled away even more. The truck mounted infantry I keep out of LOS, gradually expanding out on the road net. 204th tank regiment crashes into Sadki behind a storm of artillery and mortar fire, wiping out the defenders, who seem to be an infantry recon company and heavy company - their bicycles are crushed beneath the tracks! On the left flank my recon units suffer some losses at the hands of 37mm and 50mm AT guns, there seem to be German company and battalion strongpoints everywhere, and a raiding company of BT-7s take, and are then thrown out of, at least one village.
 


The 204th Tank Regiment supported by motorised infantry take Sadki. The wrecks are destroyed German armoured cars.

I have made the surprising discovery that there aren't many Germans on the left flank at all, but there seems to be a strong line anchored along the river itself. On the right flank I have to shunt my units around, so whilst the medium tank battalion assaults a German rifle battalion on the main road itself, the light tanks advance cautiously parallel with the river. The former come under artillery fire which causes heavy losses amongst the few infantry I have, whilst the unsupported light tanks suffer heavy losses from infantry in the woods. I succeed in cutting the main road (and a 100 VP objective) but the Germans are mounting a counterattack and the artillery fire may make the position untenable.

Losses at this point are moderate, although I have lost more infantry than I would care to before the main battle is joined and I even lost a tank battalion commander to a lucky shot. I cannot afford to lose so many tanks. Groups three and four will make their operations even more limited until reinforcements arrive. Groups one and two must form up to break the German line. At the start of turn six I have lost 11 tanks (7 of them BT-7s), 4 armoured cars and 17 SP of infantry/MGs. The German outposts have suffered quite heavily, losing 12 mortars/guns, 15 anti-tank guns, 76 SP of infantry/MG and no less than 88 transport vehicles (although a lot of these are wagons, bicycles etc).

Turns 6-10

Over the next five turns my right hand group will basically try to hold on to their gains, while their reinforcements straggle on from off map. The left hand groups must form up to break through the German line along the river. I have already outrun much of my artillery support, so now is the time to move the guns up.
 


The Russians form up to break through. Note the major German prescence on the right flank.

The 203rd Tank Regiment is successful in holding its positions as it is bolstered by a couple of enginer companies and finally by its third tank battalion. The Germans continue to launch furious counterattacks and drive my units out of Sovkino until I manage to retake it. A heroic charge by two German rifle companies led by a full Colonel is crushed beneath the tracks of the KVs and T34s of the medium tank battalion. By turn nine, observers in Sovkino have spotted the German Divisional HQ some 4 km away, dug into a rocky hill. Unfortunately most of my artillery is either moving up or out of contact, so only a few ineffective shells drop around Gen Meindl and his staff!

The 204th Tank Regiment forms up with three battalions abreast on a 2km front, supported by two mortar companies it crashes into the German line to the west of the river. After a hard fight the torrent of armour succeeds and takes two bridges over the river. Now it is time to exploit the success, one tank battalion pushes north to Tishovo itself, while the other two press forward across the river to link up with the 203rd. The northern battalion becomes bogged down in street fighting, so I commit my motorised infantry battalion in support. Although they dismount successfully, German spotters direct devastating fire onto the massed trucks. My artillery finally redeploys in Sadki, within range of the German second and third line positions beyond the river and main road.
 


The 204th rolls over the German line

Jump map showing the position as the 204th and 203rd drive towards each other.

As turn 10 draws to a close, the 204th are poised to clear Tishovo and press into the rear of the Sovkino defenders. At this point my losses have risen to 17 tanks (all T-26 or BT), 9 armoured cars, 23 SP of infantry and 18 trucks. The wearing away of the Germans continues however, their transport and artillery losses have not been that heavy, now standing at 21 mortars/guns, 24 anti-tank and 111 transport. Their infantry losses are 196 SP however, the equivalent of two battalions. In victory terms I have just slipped into a Marginal Victory by 73 points, but it is a long way to go to Major!

Turns 11-15

I finally have my entire force on (although some of it is still coming up from the map edge) and by the end of the turn, all my artillery will be deployed. Operations for the next phase will mainly be aimed at linking up the two tank Regiments (now only seperated by a few km), in preparation for a breakthrough into the depth of the German position. It may be possible to slip some raiding units into their rear soon, but the German units seem to go on forever, my armoured cars so far have not been able to slip through, and all my light armour has proved disappointingly vulnerable to direct infantry fire.

In the north, my combined tank and infantry battalion should be able to clear the several 100 VP locations north of there unaided, while the bulk of my division proceeds eastwards. It will soon be time to relocate my divisional and regimental HQs again, and I stupidly lost a tank battalion HQ to artillery fire as I did not check LOS well enough. Sadki is temporarily stuffed with HQs, medium and heavy artillery, trucks, tractors etc. Good job the Germans can't see them!

Group 1 now consists of one tank and one infantry battalion, heading north, Group 2 is the two remaining tank battalions of the 204th supported by various infantry remnants and engineers, Group 3 is the two light tank battalions of the 203rd suported by two engineer companies and finally Group 4 is the medium tank battalion of the 203rd and the final motorised infantry battalion.

Group 1 moves north and manages to destroy a company outpost without too much difficulty, but gets bogged down in street fighting further north. Boosted by leaders the German infantry are just _so_good_. I finally manage to slip a company of BT-7s and an armoured car platoon off to the east, who manage to locate and wipe out a field artillery battalion quite quickly. The rest of the group make slow progress, and it is only by supporting them with a whole medium artillery battalion and the regimental gun company (as well as the infantry mortar company) that they make any headway at all.
 


Group One fights on the outskirts of Tishovo. The wrecks are Russian this time.


 


Group 2 now advances rapidly eastwards, heavy opposition is only encountered in Krashnevo, and I lose a T34 to 50mm AT guns in the close range fighting. I throw in both the tank regiment and division commander to boost my tanks effectiveness, the division commander however is to be seen riding off on a KV-1 pursuing fleeing German infantry across the fields. Group 3 pushes up from the south and squeezes the Germans from the other flank. Finally Groups 2 and 3 link up, and the surviving Germans try to flee east and south, pursued by tank and infantry detachments.
 



 

Group three enters the woods NorthWest of Krashnevo.
 

Attacked from both sides, Krashnevo falls. The remaining Germans are trying to get away along a marshy stream bed which is impassable to armour.


 


Group 4 advances cautiously northeast and finally takes Dgeeva. This once more prompts furious German counterattacks, and my artillery is tied up to beat these off.

At this point my plan has succeeded, the divison is united, at least one German battalion is cut off in the south west and the others have suffered heavy losses. The German third line has a gaping hole in it to the north, although there still seem to be least four main strongpoints in my path. My losses have continued to climb, I have now lost 31 tanks, 10 armoured cars, 13 trucks, 52 infantry/MGs and no less than three battalion commanders (whose continued use in Close Combat has resulted in heavy losses). The Germans are now suffering brutally, 190 transport, 56 guns/mortars, 48 AT guns and 367 infantry steps have been destroyed.

It is notable that it is mainly his infantry I have been fighting for the last half an hour, his transport seems to have moved out of reach. I have also destroyed a number of battalion HQs and one regimental HQ. Tactically the Russians keep outrunning their infantry support, the Red Army infantry are very slow on foot and very vulnerable while mounted, and coninually suffer heavy losses from MG and artillery fire as they try to keep up with the tanks. Ths in turn means that for much of the time the tanks are fighting on their own, and are forced to rely on heavy fire support and exposing their leaders to continual danger. Now that the German position is breaking up, I have been able to surround infantry units before assaulting them, which is dramatically increasing his losses as retreating units are eliminated.

Turns 16 - 20

This phase will be spent forming up for the final assault on the third line. In a 'proper' blitzkrieg I would just bypass these positions, however the Germans are still sitting on around 1000 points of victory locations, and my orders are to secure the road, not take Berlin! We must take the last high ground overlooking the road.
 


The situation is confused. Heavy fighting continues in the NorthWest and SouthEast, whilst the central forces have to mop up the isolated Germans and form up to assault the German third line in the centre. Note the raiding group in the extreme north.


 


Group 1 will continue to fight in the north, Group 2 will detach its medium tank battalion to Group 3 and the remiander will break up the trapped German units, Group 4 will consolidate its position and detach its infantry to Group 3, whilst Group 3 will be made up to comprise one medium tank (204th reg), two light tank (203rd reg), one motorised infantry battalion and whatever other infantry untis can be scraped up.

The fighting in the north contines to rage, with progress being measured in metres, however my infantry is now in the town and supporting the tanks, so the Germans are steadily pushed back. Group 2 crashes through the trapped Germans, scattering them to the winds, and Group 4 manages to hold off a battalion strength counterattack and form up the infantry.
 


The main assault begins to form up in the centre whilst Group two commences mopping up.

My efforts to form up Group 3 are constantly hampered by small groups of Germans roaming behind the lines which threaten my artillery, HQs etc and various units are kept running about to make sure they don't get up to any mischief. Group 3 begins to move forward slowly, albeit not formed up completely, and runs headlong into yet another counterattack, so the tanks halt and engage the waves of German infantry with gunfire.

Group 2 will have to become my 'anti-partisan' unit and deal with these annoying infiltrators - one German MG platoon in particular is proving very elusive, despite being pursued by infantry and armoured cars. In a graphic illustration of the problems the Russian infantry have, two entire platoons of engineers are destroyed by artillery just as they mount their trucks in a supposedly 'safe' location. My raiding group sweeps the whole German rear area, but does not manage to locate any more artillery, it must be very well hidden or off-map. I shall have to use them to cut off the third line units if my attack ever gets underway!

Turns 20 - 25

Group 1 finally breaks the German resistance but stays committed in the north to mop up any surviving German units. The AI launches a counter attack consisting of towed AT guns! These deploy but are destroyed by my (now disengaged) tanks who are moving SE to link up with the main force.

Group 2 continues to rampage through the trapped Germans, again mopping up ties up this group for some time. Tank losses from direct fire continue to climb however.

Group 3 finally makes its assault, although the effort ends up somewhat dispersed. One medium tank battalion assaults the German Div HQ in Plotki, two light tank battalions and my dismounted motor rifle battalion assault a supporting strongpoint to the southeast and my disheartened raiding group closes in the from the rear. The Germans put up a resistance to rival that at Stalingrad - their trenches and rough terrain mean my leaders get left behind, and even 152mm artillery makes little impression on the defenders. Mixed groups of infantry, engineers and tanks work their way forward by direct fire and close assault, taking advantage of disrupted/retreated units to seize weak positions. As The Germans are forced back, their units pile up, one hex has six rifle platoons and three leaders in it. My raiders finally have some success and find another German artillery battalion just behind the strongpoint, which is speedily overrun. With the defenders completely surrounded, they begin to disintegrate as retreat results become eliminations. Finally they are reduced to a single stack, surrounded on all sides, which continues to hold out.
 


The Germans fight on heroically but are steadily overwhelmed.

The assault on the Div HQ does not go very well, there are just too many Germans with too many leaders, although they are poorly dug in so my artillery wreaks havoc among them. I lose three T34s to close assault, but finally the disengaged tanks from Group 1 arrive to lend a hand and General Meindl dies heroically, pistol in hand. A couple of die hard companies continue to hold out on the edge of the town.

Defenders of the German Divisional HQ hold out in Plotki.

While this as been going on, Group 4 has been making very slow progress SE through woods and dug in German infantry. At this point I have lost track of the losses - the Germans have lost massive amounts of artillery and men, but my AFV losses are well over 60 - more than 20% of my original force. Those are heavy losses given that the Germans did not have any AFVs at all, and the bulk of their AT guns were 37mm! There is one strongpoint as yet not attacked, but all my forces are engaged with no-one to spare and time running out.

Turns 25 - 30
 


The situation on turn 27.

My troops in Group 3 continue to deal with the German groups holding out in the third line in the centre. I begin to move the disengaged units of Group 2 SE to prepare an assault on the last German position, but they are unlikely to achieve much, especially as Group 4 stays firmly bogged down. At this point the Red Army has achieved a major victory with no likelyhood of losing, and given that I will not be able to launch a coordinated attack on the last group of Germans in Pesochva, it seems like a good time to stop.

By the end of turn 27 I have lost 201 steps, the Germans 1146 and it is a major Russian victory. My forces have lost 50 tanks (including four T34s), 10 armoured cars, 27 trucks, three battalion commanders and 100 steps of infantry (about two battalions, or half my starting infantry). As in all wars, it is the infantry who have borne the brunt of the casualties.

The Germans have suffered devastating losses, with their division being virtually wiped out; 95 guns/mortars, 51 anti-tank guns, 706 infantry steps (about eight battalions) as well as division HQ, two regimental HQs, eight battalion HQs, and masses of transport. The Smolensk highway is firmly in Russian hands!

This was the East Front largest scenario I have played, and I was pleasantly surprised that manouvering a whole division was not too difficult. In the end, the unfair advantage the game LOS system gives armour worked against the Germans as I could shoot up their AT guns from a safe distance, however their dug in infantry proved difficult to dislodge, and even 122mm guns did not do much to well dug in defenders. I was impressed with the tenacity of the AI, its repeated counterattacks kept me off balance, and although its handling of close assault could have been better, it did manage to pull of a few nasty attacks.