Breakthrough to Orsha

Battlefront recently released the first of their new books covering aspects of Operation Bagration, titled Stalin’s Onslaught. As with most of their recent books, this one focuses on a couple of unique units that opposed one another – in this case the German 78th Sturm Division and various elements of the 8th Guards Rifle Corp used in the initial assaults on the German lines. One of the things featured in the book is a breakdown of the Special Assault Groups formed by the Soviets to punch through the outer ring of fortifications. We decided to try and represent one of these, taking a slice through the unit and trying to preserve the proportions of the various units as much as possible. I put together a scenario in which the Soviets are trying to open as wide a gap in the German lines as possible along the Minsk-Moscow highway. I used Goggle Earth and maps of Operation Bagration to set the table with terrain appropriate for the conflict. You can get the scenario briefings and map below.

German Briefing, Soviet Briefing, Map

On the Soviet side we basically fielded most of a regiment of infantry, including all of the rifle companies, one submachine gun company, and a number of mortar units. Of course, a Soviet “regiment” at this stage was a far cry from a Western regiment in manpower. Supporting this basic force were mineroller tanks, IS-2s, a sapper company, ISU-152a, SU-76s, and OT-34 flamethrower tanks.

The Germans had a company of infantry from the 78th Sturm Division supported by a battalion AT platoon, an HMG platoon, and with a StuG IIIG battery in reserve along with a platoon of pioneers and a platoon of Nashorns. Finally, the Germans had an extensive array of mines, wire and a few AT and HMG bunkers.

The Initial deployment of the Soviets put the minerollers, IS-2s, sappers, and ISU-152s on the table in successive waves with the bulk of the Soviets entering on turn 1. Since we had a lot of forces, we were trying to get things on the table and moving quickly, so didn’t pay as much attention as we should have to our initial deployment. As a result the PT-34 minerollers ended up on one side and the rest of the tanks on the other. The sappers were there to open minefields on that side but it took longer and the delay proved costly.

After the preiminary bombardment killed off a couple of HMGs and a couple of PaK40’s, the Soviets began a general advance and the minerollers punched a hole in the defensive belt to the north, but began taking fire from the German PaK40’s. The sappers sprinted to the mines and came under withering HMG fire. However they unpinned in the next turn an opened a path for the IS-2s to advance. The sappers spread out and began work on the adjacent minefields, eventually opening a fairly wide path before being machine gunned away. On both sides the tanks went forward and tore gaps in the wire. The heavy IS-2s were largely immune to the early PaK fire, but the lighter T-34 minerollers were gutted, but not before fighting to the last tank.

Behind these first waves the main force of Soviet infantry began to advance. However, another casualty of our hurried deployement soon reared it’s head. The Germans began to drop fire from their single mortar, 2 7.5 cm infantry guns, and off-table 10.5 cm artillery among the advancing Soviets. Packed close together as they advanced, the Soviet units were easily pinned by the artillery fire. Between the battalion commanders and regimental commanders, we should have had a command team in place to allow each of the four assault companies to re-roll failed morale tests, but we did not properly place the command teams and now paid the price as some of our units remained pinned down (despite being fearless) and failed to advance. The Germans were then able to shift fire onto the unpinned elements such that we seemed to always have a unit or two pinned down, significantly slowing our advance.

The tide truly turned against the Soviet attack when they got great rolls to bring their reserves forward. Early on they managed to get their Hornisse platoon onto the table. The Hornisse were able to position themselves just out of range of the IS-2s, but the IS-2s were within range of their lethal long-barreled 88mm guns and started to brew up, as did the leading ISU-152s. Without the heavy tanks to destroy the bunkers and HMGs, the infantry was going to be crushed so we tried desparately to get the tank destroyers. However, the low rate of fire of our heavies meant we were never able to get the hits on the tank destroyers. Insult was added to injury when the Germans received another reserve in the form of a StuG platoon that came forward and began engaging the OT-34 flame tanks.

The Hornisse slowly but surely wiped out all of the IS-2s and a couple of the ISU-152s. Mik had managed to get an infantry company across line of the wire and within range to charge the trenches, but they would go no further. Massed machine gun fire cut most of the rest of the company. Without tank support and with the German MLR effectively untouched, the Soviets saw no reason to extend the game and slunk back across no-man’s land. A crushing victory for the Germans. No fear. STAVKA will send another 3 or 4 regiments until the way is clear. Our next game is already in planning and will feature the Soviet armor advancing against scattered German ambushes and disorganized reserves to encircle the Germans.

An assault against prepared positions like this generally involves not a lot of maneuver on the fly and so planning is important. Scott made some good plans for the Germans. He moved the German main line back about 6-8″ further than I would have expected and the extra distance worked well for him as it provided extra time to pummel us. Had we been able to actually get into the assault it would have played to our advantage as the objectives were just in front of the MLR and the Germans would have had to counterattack to kick the Soviets out of the captured German trenches, but since we never got close, that point is moot. The Germans probably benefited from a little too much force or fortifications on table initially or should have had much more delayed reserves to account for the time required to cross the table. As always, balancing these factors when writing a scenario is tough to get just right. sometimes I get it just right, sometimes I get close, and sometimes I fail miserably. I’d call this one a close :). With better planning, such as putting the PT-34 mine rollers in front of the IS-2s and ISU-152, and keeping commanders with all assault companies, we could have pushed our infantry onto the trenches in greater numbers and spread out the fire instead of allowing them to concentrate in a company at a time and had better fire support forward.

The description of the Special Assault Group in the Stalin’s Onslaught provided an interesting basis for a game, but as is often the case with Flames of War products, the company’s emphasis on pick-up games and tournament style games comes through. In this instance, they provide a lot of interesting historical information on these assault forces, but then really don’t provide critical information for someone who might want to represent the actions as a historical scenario – namely any idea of the scale of battlefield this formation would have fought on. I have no idea what frontage this unit would fight on or what size German formation would be expected to oppose it. We guessed and had an enjoyable game. The book does include three historical scenarios covering the fighting against the 78th Sturm Division, but each is sized to use a force approximately the same size as the “typical” company familiar to most Flames of War player.

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