The Road to Stalingrad: Leutnant Mueller’s Iron Cross
As readers of Lard Island News will know, there is nothing I like more than a game with narrative; apart, that is, from a game with really good tactics AND narrative. A good story can often be heroic, sometimes amusing, sometimes poignant, but a display of good tactics when combined with a good leadership narrative provides us mere mortals with a chance to appreciate how in warfare men can step up and go beyond the normal to produce results which really impress. How often have we seen games where one soldier is singled out in our mind as being a hero or, possibly more rarely, being a ‘Big Man’; a leader who stands head and shoulders above others on the battlefield?
As part of our drive on Stalingrad, our German forces are still to the West of the Don, looking to advance rapidly and seize an intact bridge across the mighty river. Our game last night saw a German pioneer platoon launch an attack on a Soviet held farm as they drove East. The Germans had decided to reduce two of their squads to nine men so as to form a demolition team and a mine clearing team whilst their third squad was still at full strength with 12 men. Additionally, they took with them an SdKfz 232 armoured car and a StuG IIID for some fire support. The Soviet defenders had a rifle platoon of four squads, a Maxim Team, one 45mm Anti-Tank gun, one anti-tank rifle and a Commissar as well as two minefields.
We played through the Patrol Phase as an Attack & Defend Scenario (Scenario Three in the rules) with both side beginning on a Force Morale of 9. The resulting Jump-Off Points are shown on the map below, with the Soviets being shown as red stars, the Germans as white discs.
To allow the reader to orientate themselves better, here’s the same photo with two key landmarks on it. The Farm Manager’s house, like most of the structures here, is wood and provides light cover, the workshop is a concrete structure and provides hard cover.
As we can see, on a pretty open table the Germans have done well to get one jump-off point forward into the village although their other two are pretty much on their baseline. The Soviets have a broad front to defend with some key buildings available to them.
The game began with a single platoon of pioneers deploying forwards into the village with the 232 armoured car deploying onto the road.
The Soviet player immediately rolled a double 6, thereby seizing the next Phase, and responded by deploying a Maxim team into the farm manager’s upstairs window and the anti-tank gun onto the road.
The AT gun hit the armoured car twice, once with a lucky shot against a weak spot in the armour and killed the driver as well as damaging the sights on the main gun. The crew were on the edge of bailing out with three shock and, with the driver dead, the vehicle was immobile. The Maxim put down fire at just under 24″, it’s optimum range as it was at close range whereas any fire back from the rifles and LMG of the pioneers would be at longer range due to their 18″ range band. As it was a lucky shot hit the German squad leader and knocked him out. Worse for the Germans, their force morale fell by 2 to 7.
The Germans responded with a big clunking first in the shape of the StuG III which hurled HE shells onto the AT gun. The gun got off one more shot, again shaking the crew of the 232 which had, fortunately been rallied by their commander so again they did not bail out but were on the brink of doing so. As it was, a lucky shot from the STuG killed four of the crew on the AT gun and the rest broke and ran.
This was a big blow for the Soviets as the StuG now pushed down the road looking for fresh targets.
The Soviets fired their Maxim again, bringing the Shock on the Pioneers platoon up to 7 on just 7 men but as the StuG lined up to rely they used a Chain of Command dice to run downstairs out of line of sight. The very sight of this monster was sufficient to see the Soviets withdraw and the Germans immediately responded. Deploying their platoon commander, Leutnant Mueller, he rallied the SHock off the man and then began to push forward in tandem with the StuG.
A stray shot now took out the German MG team but Muller was not to be put off. He kept up the advance with his rifle Team, pushing forwards once again. Moving up under cover of the buildings, the Germans then played a Chain of Command dice to push forward their jump-off point.
The “hand of God” in action. To the left we can see the Soviet Maxim team which, having left the farm manager’s house is wandering about somewhat listlessly.
It was now Mueller took decisive if somewhat unorthodox action. Rushing forwards into the house, he ordered his men to throw three grenades through the window ahead. As umpire I stressed that any grenades which missed the window would explode INSIDE the house, but some impressive dice rolling saw all three grenades sail through the window and kill four of the Maxim team, wounding the junior Leader.
The Germans now deployed their second section to cover the road and the buildings around the junction…
…meanwhile Mueller pushed on with his rifle Team, knocking holes in the fence so as to continue their advance.
With their backs against the wall, the Soviets deploy their AT rifle team which hits the StuG but fails to penetrate its frontal armour.
In response, Mueller storms forwards. Rushing the rear door of the farm manager’s house he bursts in and immediately brings forwards his jump-off point using another Chain of Command dice. He then repeats his dangerous but once again effective tactic of hurling grenades through the window and immediately deploys another section straight into action which wipes out the AT rifle team. The street is full of Germans and, despite still having a Force Morale of 2, the Soviet player realises that he cannot save his central jump-off point from being seized and withdraws his force from the action.
The body count was remarkably light, The Germans lost five men in total, the Soviets ten. However the difference in Force Morale would mean that in a campaign situation the Germans would have lost just one man. What is certain is that they haven’t destroyed their opponent who lives to fight another day, but they have snatched a win by great tactics. Let’s look at another graphic to illustrate this.
Here we can see the StuG on the road effectively ‘bullying’ the Soviets into keeping their heads down. This then allows Mueller the freedom to move his jump-off point twice, as shown by the arrows, to bring his reserve on right into the heart of the action. This is a great bit of play. What the German player has done is to keep his powder dry and push up with a depleted squad. There was nothing rushed about the attack; the Germans played through the phases one step at a time to gain ground and then consolidate with the JOP move forward. Using a senior leader allows the Germans to push the attack hard and back that up with a shower of grenades. It was a risky policy, but it was a calculated risk and it paid off.
What I enjoyed about the game was that we hear a lot about some games being “heroic WWII’. I am never really sure what that means, but what I do know is that if we see heroism in every game it ceases to be heroic, it is run of the mill. Here we saw the rare events in Chain of Command of a player really getting their act together and everything going right for them in almost a perfectly synchronised attack. Had just one of the grenades been fumbled it could have spelt curtains for Mueller and his attack, but it didn’t; luck was with him.
What I also liked was that this was a nice display of combined arms fire and movement. The StuG moved up as a mobile base of fire and then the infantry pushed on under its watchful eye. I saw a comment on line the other day saying that Chain of Command can bog down into a firefight. I would not disagree, but that only happens IF YOU LET IT. Firepower in Chain of Command can be deadly, especially if you unleash the MG42, but that is correct. Infantry sections were issued with LMGs in order to provide the bulk of their killing potential. Nobody ever says I don’t want an LMG with my squad as it “isn’t worth it”; they are worth it and they hurt. So, when your enemy fires at one of your sections it is human nature to sit there and fire back as it can often seem the safest thing to do. In fact, by focussing on fire and not a combination of fire and manoeuvre you allow inertia to dominate ad who wins the firefight becomes a lottery of bad luck. Indeed, usually nobody ‘wins’ such a firefight, both sides get chewed up so badly that they are no longer fit for purpose.
In truth, Chain of Command provides you with all the tools you need to keep your force mobile and flexible: moving tactically and using covering fire, if used correctly, will allow you to outmanoeuvre a stationary enemy taking advantage of his inertia to make his position untenable. As indeed we saw here. Soviet Force Morale was poor but they COULD have kept fighting. As it was, decisive action based on fire and manoeuvre won the Germans a relatively pain free victory.
For Mueller we decided that the Iron Cross was appropriate, but we did wonder about what his men would be saying around their fire that evening. Such heroics make for medals and a great story, but his men also know how close to death it brought them. One slip, one misplaced grenade and it could have been very different. As they get ready for their next action with Leutnant Mueller they may just be wondering if this is a “gong-hunter” who is happy to pay for his tin wear with their blood. Only time will tell if they are right.