Return to Fort St Blaise
Watchers of Twitter may have noticed that, as part of our ongoing Metz 1944 campaign, my US platoon attempted to assault Fort St Blaise last week, but to no avail. We were repulsed with some nasty casualties despite getting to the fort’s rear door. It was a tough action but it was also very informative. The 19th century fortifications around Metz, built by the Germans after their victory of 1871 and subsequently maintained and improved by the French after 1918, were ageing and designed to provide long range artillery fire rather than a localised defence, but they were formidable all the same. My recent excursion to the Hurtgenwald to view the West Wall had served to whet my appetite for bunker busting, but this was taking things to a new level!
Nevertheless, my defeat in the last game had not left me downhearted. We had come very close indeed to blowing off the fort’s rear door and letting loose our flamethrower armed Engineers. All that had come between victory and defeat was a well played Chain of Command dice from my opponent which had allowed him to cutdown my bazooka team as they lined up their shot. Having come so close, I was confident that, despite losses, I could deliver the goods this time.
My first job was to re-organise my platoon to try to maximise my effectiveness for the job in hand and to mitigate somewhat for my losses. I chose the following arrangement.
Base of fire squad: Two three man BAR teams
Manoeuvre squad: One four man team with BAR and one four man rifle team
Assault squad: One 8 man rifle Team
Bazooka Team of two men
These all had Junior Leader with them and Two senior Leaders were still alive to command the force.
Next I selected my support for this mission. I went wth an Engineer squad with Junior Leader, an Engineer Demolition Team, a second bazooka Team and a FOO with mortars.
My plan was pretty straight forward. We now knew where the embrasures were which covered the fort perimeter. I planned to take the first of these out with my flamethrower (part of the Engineer squad) before using the base of fire squad to put covering fire down on the rear embrasures, use smoke grenades to cover an advance and then take out the rear embrasures with grenades (or at least force the Germans to shut these so they couldn’t fire on us) before blowing the door off and using the flamethrower team to lead the way.
As it was, the dastardly Krauts had been hard at work and had placed wire entanglements directly in my path. A fact that I only discovered at the end of the Patrol Phase. I was very grateful that I had selected an Engineer section as I could now choose my two Teams, one of which I could now use as a wire clearance team.
As in the first game, I got my jump-off points right up to an outlying bunker. Its embrasures were facing the wrong way, away from the fort rather than into it, but it did give me some safe cover to deploy into. I began the game deploying my base of fire squad onto the table. The better news was that my Command Dice roll of 35555 saw my Chain of Command points accumulating rapidly. In this campaign we begin the game with some CoC points so I already had a full CoC dice to use if needed.
Here is a view of the table. I had the option of beginning with my Patrol markers on the right hand edge or nearest edge. I chose the nearer one as I saw the outlying bunker as was my key to gaining entry.
In the previous game I had identified four embrasures which provided the fort with its close quarter defences. Here they are:
Two of the embrasures fired directly down the ditch around the base of the fort (I presume that a third covered the far ditch), whilst two covered the rear access point, the main entrance to the fort from above ground.
One of the problems I was faced with was that whilst I knew that these were there, I had no idea what the cupolas on top could do, nor if the Germans could appear on the roof of the fort if they needed to. All of which meant that I needed to be a bit circumspect in my approach.
Next down was the Engineer Wire Clearance Team.
Now I moved my base of fire squad forward. The chance of them doing any damage against the Germans in the rear apertures was almost zero, but I intended to move them up to draw fire in the hope of pinning these in position while my engineers went forward to deal with the wire. While there were troops manning these embrasures, they were not popping up anywhere else!
The base of fire squad moved up with order to take cover. In the image below you’ll see the triangular “tactical” marker just in front of the squad on the left of the image. Meanwhile the Assault squad advanced in the middle, throwing a smoke grenade into the ditch, while the flamethrower team moved up on the right, also Tactical.
In the middle, the Engineer Team had moved up with the Platoon Sergeant and cleared the wire. I wanted the platoon sergeant in place with the Engineers as, with so much wire in our path, their role would be key. As a result I put one of my best leaders with them to make sure they did their job.
With the first wire section cleared, my next job was to deal with the embrasure which covered the road access point. With the smoke grenade down I ran forwards my Assault Squad and Engineers. The Germans responded with a rather surprisingly accurate burst of fire which saw three men killed, much to my horror. Clearly the smoke was not as thick as I had hoped or maybe it’s my fault for rolling three 6’s on three dice!
Either way, with the embrasure open it was time for the Engineers to do their job.
The German machine gun team were no more. Job done.
Now my mortars arrived, covering the fort in smoke. Immediately my Engineers rushed forwards and, with a lucky roll, they cleared the next section of wire in moments.
All was, apparently, going swimmingly well. However, what I have failed to tell you is that my Junior Leader heading the base of fire squad had been killed very early on and my force morale had plummeted to 7.
Now, with the flamethrower team exposed on the ditch parapet, the German embrasure at the far end of the ditch opened fire and my Engineer leader was wounded and the flamethrower team routed. Our force morale was now at 5.
We had also been burning CoC dice as we attempted to keep the mortar barrage firing as the enemy repeatedly ended turns. Now, with the wire cleared, we let them end the barrage and our assault squad and fire and manoeuvre squads rushed forwards with grenades. Remarkably, I rolled 15″ for movement and the assault squad reached the embrasures, shoving two grenades through them. Screams from within told us they had done their job.
Playing a Chain of Command dice I brought forward a Jump-off Point.
We were now ready for the final assault. My demolition and bazooka teams could now deploy forwards and blast us into the fort. The loss of the flamethrower team was unfortunate, but we would have to storm in with grenades and SMGs to the fore and deal with the enemy the hard way.
However, I hadn’t anticipated one thing. Up to now, the Germans had deployed small two-man MG teams at the embrasures. They put out a lot of firepower but they are brittle and can be overcome. But this time the Germans had deployed an entire squad to the twin embrasures and, despite losses, they were still manning the machine guns.
Their fire scythed through the two lead squads, breaking one, killing a Senior Leader and wounding a Junior one. With such losses my Force Morale fell to zero and the attackers withdrew.
What a disaster. I had hoped that by playing my ay through the phases, building on small incremental victories such as removing with wire and taking out the embrasure, I could win through. However, once the mortar bombardment ended, the inherent strength of the fort once again became clear, What was more, my platoon suffered 12 men dead or wounded. The Germans lost seven men, but with their Force Morale still at 5, their losses in the campaign will still be very low indeed.
Thoughts & Reflections
Painful as it was to see victory dashed from my grasp at the eleventh hour, this was a game which really gave all who took part the opportunity to reflect on just what a tough nut to crack such fortifications were. Interestingly, having written a piece on bunker busting on the Siegfried Line and researched the tactics used there, I did rather have advanced warning of how tough it would be. On the West Wall, troops went back time and again to try a different combination of tools to crack positions and here the range of Engineering supports was very similar.
On reflection, I feel that this time I took too many engineering tools; the second bazooka team was a waste of support points and what I really needed was some meaty direct fire weapon to keep the Germans trapped behind their embrasures. As it stands, until the fort falls we cannot bridge the Moselle and bring forward our tanks, so something like a 0.50 cal HMG may well be what we need. Add that to the base of fire teams and we can produce sufficient covering fire and actual firepower to see the Germans shut their embrasures and allow our demolition team forward.
What really would help would be a Chain of Command dice to interrupt and get the key blow in before the Germans can shoot us down. However, in this game we desperately needed to keep the mortar barrage going and all of our Chain of Command points were sucked into that.
Anyway, a great game where we really felt that history was standing at our shoulder as we had fun and one where, driving home last night, I was moved to contemplate the poor buggers who did the job for real.
Sometimes when reading game reports on line we see terms used which are peculiar to a rule set and, if we are not familiar with the rules we can get a false impression of what is happening. So, here you will have seen a couple of units on the table with a Tactical marker next to them. What, you may ask, does that signify?
The Tactical marker is quite simply a marker to indicate that the troops concerned are taking cover if they are behind an obstacle, or are advancing carefully if they are moving. It’s a very simple concept that accepts that in reality there are several ways to skin a cat. If you have a 100 yard stretch of road ahead of you you need to make a decision how you cross that ground. You could, of course, just run down the road and Chain of Command allows you to do that. You roll 3D6 and move that far in inches. You do pick up a point of shock on any Team doing this to reflect a bit of disorder but your leaders can rally that off pretty quickly when you get to your destination. It just represents your blokes running like mad and getting their breath back and reorganising at the end of the run.
Secondly, you could move down the road at normal movement rate. It will take you a bit longer to get from A to B but when you get there you are in complete control of your troops and they are ready for immediate action.
Finally, you can move in a Tactical manner. When we play games on our tabletops they are artificially flat and artificially empty. Next time you walk down the road to the pub or take your dog out, take a look at the ground. It isn’t flat and there are endless bits of cover that you could utilise if you thought a group of Germans were about to start shooting at you. To represent this, Chain of Command has the option of moving with just 1D6 of movement, or staying still, and being Tactical. This is much slower, it will take you much longer to cover that 100 yards, but you benefit from bing in one level cover than you appear to be in. So, in that open road you are actually hugging the buildings, utilising that drainage ditch, getting behind that pile of earth that the road menders left on the corner or even just using the camber of the road to get some cover from a potential enemy.
Having three movement options allows the player to choose the right one for the tactical situation but, like reality, there are positive and negatives. Speed makes you more susceptible to enemy fire, caution makes you safer but slower. It’s a trade off, but one which real troops make in warfare.