Thursday, 20 November 2014

Battle Report: The Bridges over the Desna - Autumn 1943

As the morning mists rolled away from the shallow valley of the Desna, a thin front line of German troops stirred in their trenches. From the other side of the river, beyond the low ridge came a single red flare, followed quickly by the sound of incoming artillery fire. 

Turns 1 - 3

Soviet artillery rattles off attacks on the woods and the farm, missing the dug-in Germans in the woods but suppressing the German mortars in the track-side farm.

Smoke from the barrage drifts across the woods while the farm burns in the background

Tom re-enters the room to see little tufts of cotton wool where his barrages have landed but none the wiser at to their effect. He immediately sets his motorised column off down the roads while his foot-slogging troops and the SU-76s head off down the railway line. Both flanks manage to get a 2nd order off after their 'free' move and gun/shuffle forwards (delete as applicable)

Soviet motorised column heads towards the river

Jon von Cleweswitz responds by moving up his Stugs and Wespes and ordered his Pioneers forward to the bridges in their transports. In a sign of things to come, a second order results in a blunder which sees the CO unit shuffle backwards and then move back to the top of the hill at the end of the command phase.

Soviet artillery is even less effective in turn 2, failing to suppress either of the dug in Paks on the hill. Not that Tom even knows that they are there. He just sees more drifting cotton wool on an empty hill. Never mind. I'm enjoying myself.

The German defences at the start of turn 2

The Soviets rumble forwards, with the troops on foot heroically outpacing the trucks. Not that the trucks are going to get very far. Having divided at the ruined village, they press on down the roads to the centre and right, only for Jon to reveal his mortar stand and, with a typically jammy snake-eyes, proceed to smash up the lead trucks on central road, creating a traffic pile up.

Once again, the artillery is useless. Tom decides to activate his right flank first, only for Jon to spring his next trap, 2MG stands and a Pak hidden in the woods on his left. Using opportunity fire they destroy the lead truck and it's unfortunate passengers and suppress the next truck. Spooked, the Soviet HQ stand commanding that flank blunders his next command roll, not only leaving his line of trucks strung out in the middle of the road in front of a german guns, but permanently lowering his CV by 1 to a measly 7.

Burning trucks on the Soviet right and centre

On the left the SU-76s fail to move but the swarm of infantry shuffle forward of the train station.

The chaos on the Soviet rights is clearly infectious as the Germans facing them fail to get an order off, leaving Jon cursing his luck. He'd fancied that his MG/Pak combo would have lots of fun with a line of stationary soft-skins. He compensates by bringing up a Wespe which does make light work of another truck. The mortars on the other flank also fail their roll and twiddle their thumbs while whistling the Horst Wessel lied.

Turn 4

No barrage to start the turn so Tom can stay in the room. His Recce stand is too far away to try to impersonate a Forward Artillery Observer so I've no need to reach for the bag of cotton wool.

The big news is that Tom's tank force arrives. Or rather it doesn't as he fails his roll for mobile deployment on his left flank near the railway line. Cue a disappointed GamesMASTER who's first big surprise for the German's has turned out to be a bit of a damp squib.

With the HQ of the motorised column a gibbering wreck, the Soviet CO takes command of the flank and orders all the trucks off the road into the ditches and cornfields. Sadly they don't succeed in deploying their guns or unloading their infantry.

The SU-76s stall again but the heroic hordes once again advance faster than the trucks.

In response, Jon's left flank fail again, seeing their juicy targets melting away into the undergrowth. The mortars manage to suppress one of the SU-76s and the right flank Wespe destroys the lead MG stand of the fast approaching Soviet left flank.

Turn 5

The SU-76s are the heroes this turn, pouring fire on the trenches by the railway embankment. Not that it's hard to be heroic by comparison when the rest of your force fails it's command rolls. Only the long-suffering foot-cavalry on the left continue to advance, perhaps clogging the entry routes for the tanks who once again fail to arrive.

The inexorable advance of the Soviet infantry

The Germans respond to the slowing of the Soviet advance by finally getting an order off with their own left flank in the woods. Two trucks, their towed guns and their cargoes are wiped out while the Pioneers disembark into the bridge-side trench.

On the railway flank, the Wespe moves up onto the railway embankment to get line of sight to the masses of infantry advancing on the bridge, while the Stugs move up in support. The mortars pound away fairly ineffectually at the hordes too.

Turn 6

Firstly the failures: The recce fail to order an artillery strike and the tanks fail to arrive AGAIN! (Note to self, the tanks should really arrive automatically)

However, both infantry blobs do get orders off. The left flank open up on the Wespe with mortars and suppresses it. The rest of the troops roll ever closer to the bridge. The right flank does finally manage to disembark and unlimber their remaining guns, still some distance from the bridge.

The Soviets are now close enough to the railway bridge for the Germans to get some shots off in the initiative phase. Sadly that's about as good as it gets for Jon as both flanks fail their orders and the CO has to step in to move some reinforcements in their transports up from the backfield to a position behind the farm from where they can reinforce the battle for the railway bridge.

(I was planning on dropping the change of orders bomb on the Germans in turn 6 but as the tanks haven't showed yet, I decided to delay until later in the game. As it stands, the Germans are barely engaged. Afterall, the umpires' decision is final)

Turn 7:

The tanks finally arrive! And are greeted by a chuckling Jon revealing his Paks on the hill-top. Two T-34s are suppressed by the opportunity fire but the frustrated tankers get a further two orders off, advancing onto the bridge and wiping out the Wespe on the embankment. Their supporting infantry lay down fire on the German trenches around the bridge while the other flank shuffles forwards without seriously threatening either of the bridges to their front.

The Pakfront responds

At this point (and in retrospect too early but you know what it's like when you've got an exciting secret to share) I reveal to Jon his new orders:

"Despite our fanatical resistance, the enemy have overrun positions to the south of your sector. All Corps reserves are committed to contain the breakthrough. You must blow the bridges to delay the enemy to your front and then withdraw in good order down the road and railway towards Chernigov

The Soviets threaten Corps rear echelon. The prospect of a local counter attack has evaporated. These forces are now committed to a terrible struggle to keep open your lines of retreat. To avoid being overrun, you must now destroy the bridges and then extract your remaining forces as swiftly as possible via the roads to the rear.

This replaces your previous victory conditions. You will now score for both destroying the bridges and for units successfully withdrawn."

Jon responds as any good commander would and rushes his Pioneers onto the bridges to light their fuses, covered from the front by infantry stands. The only other action is that Paks brewing up the lead T-34 on the railway bridge, creating a fiery roadblock which only infantry can get past. A quick discussion concludes that another tank could push it out the way but that an infantry section might struggle to tip a burning 27 tonne tank off the bridge.

Now this is where the concept of the game as I'd envisaged it runs into the rules and player behaviour. According to the BKC rules, engineering actions are carried out in the Initiative phase. I'd ruled that Jon's pioneers needed to be 'on' the bridges to blow them as I'd worried that otherwise he'd simply be able to sit in the trenches and pop the bridges on the infamous 'anything but a 1', leaving the Soviets stranded on the far bank and allowing the Germans to withdraw at their leisure. However, as we shall see, this meant that Jon had to leave his pioneers in the open on the bridges for a full Soviet turn before his chance to blow them on his next initiative turn. And Tom responded as any sensible gamer/commander would and poured fire on the exposed sappers. With the benefit of hindsight, I needed a compromise to allow the sappers the chance to carry out their demolition from a safer position while making it harder to achieve. I think that carrying out an engineering action from an adjacent trench while needing a 3 or 4+ would have made it more fun/more tense for all concerned.

Anyway, this is what actually happened next...

Turn 8:

Initiative fire at the railway crossing sees the covering infantry unit suppressed  while the SU-76s wake from their slumbers to make short work of the pioneers on the central bridge.

The foot-slogging horde produce a timely double 1 and use their two orders to blow the engineers off the railway bridge. Now it's all down to the sappers on the German left flank. (clue- they also die to heavy mortar fire)

At the railway bridge, the Soviet infantry cross the railway bridge and begin the work of clearing the Germans from their trenches while the T-34s pour fire on the Paks, damaging but not suppressing them.

In the centre the Soviet assault is held up by the wire strung across the road while the Russian right flank still dithers.

Soon to be deceased Pioneers on the central bridge

Jon. mourning his dead pioneers, fails with an infantry unit to blow the charges on his left while initiative fire suppresses the lead Soviet infantry in the centre. However, on the right flank, too much of the infantry is suppressed to do anything about the wave of enemy infantry pouring across the railway bridge.

On the left, a successful order roll allows Jon to push his infantry all up to the bridge, figuring that 3 units might conjure up the 6 needed to blow the bridge while his MGs and Paks stop the closest Soviet infantry in their tracks.

In the centre, a vicious counter attack sends the red infantry reeling back, with multiple supporting units suppressed.

Take that Ivan!

On the right, the Paks & continue to hammer away at the looming threat presented by the tanks and infantry crossing the river.

Turn 9:

In the initiative phase an assault by the Soviet infantry clears the trenches by the railways bridge, sending the German infantry scarpering for the  shelter of the farm. A successful command roll sees the infantry move up, mowing down the retreating Germans but the lead unit is suppressed on the bridge by the Stugs, blocking the path for the units behind including the armour. Then, in a cinematic moment, the previously downgraded HQ stand, reduced to commanding the heavy mortars in the backfield blunders, calling down fire on the unit nearest to an enemy stand. This just happens to be the unit suppressed on the railway bridge and they are wiped out, clearing the way for the armour. The T-34s move out, shoving their unfortunate comrades' burning tank out of the way.

The tanks are across!

The Paks respond with opportunity fire which suppresses the lead T-34 while the SU-76s zero in on the Paks, blowing one to pieces despite the protection of it's gun-pit

With his hopes of blowing all the bridges evaporating, Jon focuses on the second part of his orders and focuses on withdrawal of his remaining forces. I'd rather hoped that he'd have committed his reserves by this point, but in fact he has some 9 stands of infantry and 17 transports uncommitted.

On the right flank, a timely 'retreat' blunder helps to begin the extraction of the mortars, Stugs and half tracks, while on the left, the MGs keep up covering fire, wiping out another Soviet infantry stand while the Wespe pulls back and a half track rumbles up to hitch up the Pak and pull back down the road.

In the rear, all of the uncommitted half tracks and trucks pull back off the table edge while a solitary half track head up the hill to extract the remaining Pak.

Turn 10

Things are starting to get real for Tom. He's got 3 turns, including this one to try to press his advantage and prevent the Germans retreating in good order.

Sadly, with the notable exception of an artillery strike that crumps one of the retreating Paks and transports, everything else fails it's orders. Only the SU-76s succeed in veering from the left flank towards the central bridge before bogging down in a field.

For Jon, this turn begins with a bang as the left flank bridge disappears in a cloud of smoke and shattered masonry. Sadly a cruel umpire ruling leaves one of the German units on the bridge at the time stranded on the Soviet bank. Oops. I am evil.

Wot no bridge?

While the left flank units pull back for three activations and are close to escaping, their towed Pak and Wespe outrunning them and making the table edge, on the right, the remaining Mortars and Stugs fail their roll, leaving them stranded strung out along the railway line.   

Turn 11

Things are even worse for the Soviets as command roll after command roll are failed. Happily for Tom, the only exception are the tanks, who sweep forward, destroying the mortars and suppressing a Stug.

For Jon, his only success is withdrawal of the remaining left flank units in good order.

Turn 12

And so to the climax.

Tom has his eyes on the German table edge. His T-34s gun forwards but fail that final roll and end up agonisingly short. Surely the Stugs and the CO stand can now simply slip away from the trap to fight another day.

Well if only. Sadly for Jon, and amusingly for the rest of us, he concludes the game with yet another blunder when ordering the Stugs. Attention is focused on the last 2D6 of the game as I consult the blunder table. An 8(?)! How amusing. As Karma for the previous blunder aiding his withdrawal, this time it's 'advance your full movement rate towards the nearest enemy'. So yes, we conclude with 2 Stugs ramming the lead T-34s in a desperate, cinematic attempt to prevent them overrunning their retreating pals


I declare that the Soviets have achieved a minor victory. They've crossed the river in force and fallen just short of the German exit point on their left. However, the Germans have withdrawn around half of their force intact with their all important transports, leaving a litter of self propelled guns and a scattering of destroyed stands behind. They live to fight another day.

To the victor the spoils (rumours of drunkenness in the Soviet command are clearly Nazi propaganda)

A reckoning of casualties shows that:

The Soviets had lost: 12 Infantry stands, 1 MG stand, 3 trucks, 1 T-34, 1 ATG and 1 SU-76

The Germans had lost: 10 Infantry stands, 1 MG stand, 1 Mortar stand, 3 Pioneer stands and their transports, 2 Paks, 1 Wespe and 3 Stugs.


Well firstly, I think we all had a good time. I was a bit worried that an umpire moderated game might end up only being fun for me as the umpire. I'm sure we've all played RPGs where the GM has enjoyed themselves mightily while railroading the players through a story he enjoyed reading. In fact our group - as previous posts on here show - have developed a style of play seemingly dedicated to avoiding interacting with the actual scenario when RPGing.

Talking with Jon and Tom afterwards, it was clear that Jon had a plan to draw the Soviets onto the railway bridge and then blow it, (even prior to receiving his replacement orders) forcing the Soviets to swing back to the centre under the sights of his Paks, while Tom was happy to rush the bridges on all fronts and react as the Germans were revealed. They say that no plan survives contact with the enemy and I was glad to see them both interacting with their orders and broadly defined victory conditions rather than feeling constrained by them or missing the usual 'have one unit within 2" of the objective marker' victory conditions. 

Did the scenario achieve what I'd been looking for? Broadly yes. I've ruminated above on some possible changes to the mechanics of blowing the bridges but otherwise I think we produced a game that achieved surprise - both in terms of hidden set up and changing orders - and that differed considerably from the usual stand up fight, last man standing competitive games we play. I've not played a game before where the losing player was so proud to have withdrawn a part of his forces intact and to have blown one of the 3 bridges.

The success of the game was helped by the BKC rule-set. While it's not perfect, and can be quite dice heavy at times, I think it does encourage a play-style that  rewards using your forces in a way that models history. Dug-in troops are hard to shift from range, suppressing support troops prior to launching an assault is crucial, etc. I think my Soviet free advance rule also helped get the scenario moving. Having the bulk of the Soviets sitting around for the first few turns would only have slowed things down and allowed more of the Germans to stay out of the fight.

Lastly how did I find being the umpire? Well I enjoyed it immensely. It allowed me to grandstand to a degree which is always fun. I had to be on my toes with the hidden set up rules which meant I had to concentrate - no bad thing although it did limit my smoke breaks. I had to be neutral despite seeing Tom criminally mishandle my lovely Soviet stands (jokes!) and I had to be flexible without being unfair, as seen with the delay to the German orders and some mid-game rulings on the use of engineering units and how to tip a burning tank off a bridge. I think I could have held off giving the German replacement orders for another turn or two to force Jon to commit more of his reserves prior to the issuing of the withdrawal order.

I'm off now to write up the next scenario.