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Smolensk '41


Soviet Operations in S41 Campaign

Introduction:

I am certainly not an expert General in playing the PzC series, my position on the ladder doesn't warrant this at all! But like a lot of teachers, I feel I can explain the theory fairly well, but when it comes to executing this theory I fail more often than not. This doesn't mean the theory is false, just that I am not so good at using my own theories!

Besides giving some points on playing the campaign game, these articles can be used by novices to the PzC series for getting that extra bit of understanding in playing it well. I also learned most of these lessons the hard way. Finally, don't let theory, articles and the shear size of a campaign game deter you from playing. Playing PzC games, and certainly playing it at the Blitz!, is the most rewarding gaming experience for any avid war gamer. And..... it is fun.

Operations:

The first and most fluid of the three games, depicts the battles around Smolensk in 1941. The Soviet Army was ill prepared for the German onslaught and that is THE decisive factor in this game. You might ask, "Where is the fun in playing the weak Soviets against the all-powerful German army?"

The point is that the operational level of this campaign makes the game so interesting. Had it been a tactical game consisting of a series of tactical battles, the Soviets were to be crushed at every engagement. You can see that in the numerous smaller scenarios on small unit engagements in the game. It is the victory conditions that decide who is the winner of the game, but more often than not, the Soviets are the losers of the actual combat.

In the full campaign the true test of abilities comes to life. The quality of the commander will decide whose army is the best.

The vast open spaces of the terrain around Smolensk (well depicted in the huge map), the fact that the German Army was superior in both staying power and mobility at this point in the war (although not in individual equipment, about which later), but weak in numbers of units, makes it into a game of cat and mouse. Combine that with the great number of fronts that have to be fought and you'll see that the Germans are placed on "the horns of dilemma" to win this battle. The German commander must choose wisely where and when to fight.

In this article I shall tour you through the Soviet and German army, locked in battle in the full campaign scenario of Smolensk (170 turns).

Elastic withdrawa
l:

In the opening turns of the campaign, the Germans have 6 columns of forces approaching the dug in Russians, situated behind major rivers. The Russians can wait where the blow(s) will fall and try to defend those positions for a number of turns. The secret lies in not staying too long in defending those positions, because they are undefendable against concentrated German assaults. The problem with the Soviets is that their troops are mostly foot soldiers, not capable of mobile warfare. So you have to withdraw them in time to keep them from being "broken" by the German attackers.

Once withdrawing, there is the additional problem of the high vulnerability of the Russian units in the open. Almost any German unit without problems can run them down. So, you have to try and locate them in wooded areas, or plan ahead and dig defences for them in advance on strategic locations. The other secret in this withdrawal game, is never allowing an opening between your units of more than one hex. Once an enemy unit slips through and your unit(s) becomes isolated, they are goners. A unit surrounded by two enemy units is isolated, its firepower halved and at the mercy of your opponent. As long as you have enough units (and as the Soviets, you usually have), you can double your lines and have one unit retreat farther back to regain some strength and morale/fatigue.

For surprises and to prevent the more mobile Germans from enveloping your flanks, try to keep a few tank units on either side of your withdrawing line to exploit German mistakes and to block German flanking movement. In one recent campaign game, my German opponent sent one battalion too far ahead of the main force. I encircled it and even with my weaker tank and infantry units quickly broke it and bagged a huge number of POW's. The next turn the German main force caught up with this situation and I withdrew upon contact.

In short: the axiom is here TRADE SPACE FOR TIME.


Fig 1. Full campaign map

In this map you can see the initial Soviet defences, spread thinly behind the major rivers Dvina and Luchesa. But once the Germans have broken through these defences, it is some 150 kilometres to Smolensk and there is ample opportunity for the Soviets to conduct a fighting withdrawal (brown lines).

Soviet artillery:

Soviet artillery is powerful, there is plenty of it and they have fairly good firing ranges. Of course, this comes with a handicap: it can take ages to set up a Soviet artillery unit (some times four to six turns, whereas a German unit will set up in two or three).

There is an advantageous way of using Soviet artillery: in the first few turns of any scenario in which the Soviets are defending (most of the time), immediately dig in those artillery tubes. They are very vulnerable to Axis airpower and counter battery fire.

Secondly, try to find your axis of retreat and set-up and dig in other artillery units, that way your troops can fall back through these lines and benefit from supporting artillery fire.

Thirdly, all artillery can fire over open sights without setting up, so you can place those artillery units right behind your lines of infantry and by using direct fire, you can support your defending artillery. The downside to this is that the Germans can see those units and call in the Stukas to destroy them. So, always try to position some AAA near your artillery.

Finally, the big advantage you have over the advancing Germans is that by withdrawing you will move out of their artillery range, thereby forcing the German commander to limber his artillery and move up, choose a new position and set up his tubes again. This takes time in which he cannot fire his guns at you. You will notice that a successful defence in a certain location will see the volume of enemy artillery fire increasing with each turn, as more and more German artillery units are set-up.

In this highly mobile campaign, always make sure you have positioned a few infantry or AT units to the rear and flanks of your artillery positions. These can be battle-weakened units on rest and recuperation, but not having anything there will see enemy units attacking those positions some day!

Soviet infantry, power in its mass:

As a Soviet commander, you will have foot infantry in great numbers. Not very fast on the move, with little staying power in the open, without trenches or behind minefields, but not without its merits.

For one, the Soviet infantry has an intrinsic anti-tank capacity that the German army lacks. Anti-tank rifles and Molotov-cocktails can destroy the weak skinned German Pz T-38, Pz I and II. The Germans always have to protect these tanks with nearby infantry to counter Soviets threatening them. Another plus is to be found in numbers, 450 men in a battalion and nine of these in a rifle-division, will give you mass, and mass can be brought to bear on an opponent. In that case, one shouldn't fire at the German units, but close-assault them. The recipe is to fire some artillery on them, move in several infantry units, have a couple of these fire at the Germans (forcing them to return the fire and using up all fire points) and then close-assault with the rest of the battalions. This may probably break a German unit, but even better, it will yield a full bag of POW's and thus victory points.

A third plus for the Soviets is that most of their footsloggers are able to move into marshes and swamps. This way they can avoid the mobile German forces, which are not allowed to move into these areas (not even their motorised infantry). Russian units can avoid destruction this way and also start a little partisan war behind German lines. An interesting option can be to leave a few units behind in your retreat (place them during the night (low visibility) in a swamp or marsh (where probably no Germans will go) and find, fix and attack German artillery in the morning. This is not for the faint of heart however, as chances are great that a German commander will send a few mobile units back to encircle you and break and mop-up your forces. However, this might be an interesting option and trading of a few Soviet infantry units for German artillery units is always a good deal!

The motto for the (Soviet) infantry is: POWER TO THE MASSES!

A special word on the engineers. These are probably your most valuable units, with possibly T-34 units as another exception. They can build and destroy bridges, build and destroy minefields and destroy and repair railroad track. Plus, they can ferry units over rivers. Make good use of them!

Immediately start blowing up bridges over major rivers at locations where you can be sure not to need those anymore. Waiting too long will see German units on the other side of the bridge and they will start hurting those engineers. Once a bridge is blown, it will take German engineers/pioneers at least two turns to build a new bridge and time is very valuable to you. The major rivers cannot be crossed without bridges. If there is time, blow bridges at minor rivers too, this will not prevent advancing Germans to cross, but it costs them more movement points and thus will buy you time. Consider laying minefields at strategic locations, to close gaps between marshy areas. s or just behind roads coming through those marshy areas. This will cause losses to the enemy (every unit that enters a minefield will suffer losses, all counting to your victory points). So an enemy commander must choose to suffer those losses or suffer loss of time when his own engineers have to clear the minefields.


Fig 2, initial defences at Mogilev

This figure of the initial defences at Mogilev clearly shows the strength and weakness of the defences and the difficult options the Germans face.

The red line shows the Soviet defenders, well dug in and behind (minor) minefields. The river Dnepr is on its east bank very marshy, so not a viable option for the Germans to try an outflank the Soviet defenders (their mechanised forces cannot cross swamps and marshes). Only route three (3) is an option, but there sits a Soviet infantry unit. Probably the only option is to fight through the defences, taking rather heavy losses. But this picture also shows the weakness of this defensive position; there is no depth in it. No reserve troops on the east bank of the Dnepr, no units digging trenches to the rear of the frontlines, to make an organised retreat possible. Once the Soviets start falling back, or their units become broken, the front will collapse. As said earlier, Soviets troops in the open, without protection from trenches, are very vulnerable to German attacks.

So, the Soviet commander must choose wisely when to start a retreat over the Dnepr. He has some troops on the southeast side of the river, which can dig trenches. But once the Germans are at the banks of the river, with multiple positions the build pontoon bridges, the Soviets cannot hope to hold them for long. Again, they must conduct a fighting withdrawal, making the best use of the defensive terrain.

A final, and rather obvious use of engineers is to assist regular units in digging trenches. Having engineers help will considerably shorten the time needed to finish these positions.

The motto is: NEVER AN IDLE MOMENT FOR THE ENGINEERS!

The Soviet mechanised forces: Tanks or tin cans?

You will ask yourself this question numerous times during combat. Except the T-34 and K-V, all other Soviet tanks seem useless. In every fire contact with the Germans they seem to lose 2 or three vehicles, to no loss with the Germans.

Again, the secret here is to match your strength with the German weakness. Never try to use your BT-5 and BT-7 tanks against German ones. This can only be done when you are very certain that the Germans are near exhaustion and their breaking point. The best use for the Soviet tanks is attacking German infantry (who generally speaking don. t have AT capabilities), artillery or HQ units. Employing hit-and-run tactics, you can make the Germans suffer and then leave, before he can retaliate with his tanks, Stukas or AT-units.

Another way of using them is in blocking movement (locking zones of control (ZOC) option should be turned on). Lets say your infantry is in contact with German infantry, by placing your tanks behind the German units, but not in contact with them, you can isolate the Germans (halving their combat value) and they are not allowed to move away from your infantry to your tanks, as moving from one ZOC to another is prohibited. This way you match your strength to German weakness at every point.

The T-34 and K-V are special cases. These units can stand up to any tank unit the Germans might throw against them. Unfortunately, you will have only a few of these in this campaign. Use them wisely and don't squander them away!

Their best use can be twofold: first as a highly mobile (specially in the case of the T-34) fire brigade, moving from one threatened area to another to stop German advances.

Take care never to leave one of these valuable units IN the frontline or even in sight of the Germans, as they will throw all their artillery and Stukas against them. Place them behind the frontlines, move them in to fire once at a German unit (causing the loss of two to three vehicles) and then move them away to a safe location. If possible, place them near an AAA unit to prevent damaging air attacks. Secondly you can and should use them in a later stage of the campaign (when the German units are tired and worn) to act as shock troops in counter attacks. They can break the first and best organised resistance, to be followed by second-rate infantry and tank forces. Quality will deal the first blow here, mass the second.

Recon forces, air units, the use of terrain, roads and railroads, what function have HQ's and other useful information to conduct operations Recon forces

"Knowledge is power" is an Old Dutch proverb and this is also very true in the PzC series. In Smolensk '41 this power mainly lies with the Axis forces, as they have both air and ground recon assets. The Soviets only have a few armoured car units and a tiny drip of air support.

So, how to make the best use of this recon capacity and do the most damage with it? Part I showed how one unit alone can be very vulnerable, even a very powerful unit surrounded by two less capable units will quickly be disrupted and broken. Most recon units are fast, but very brittle units that cannot stand continuous pounding by the enemy.

The first thing you should do with your recon units, is make sure they are covered on their flanks and have a way to retreat. Positioning them with swamps or marshes on their flanks (impassable to armoured and motorised units) or wooded areas (difficult to pass for those units) will give them some protection.

Not using up all their movement points is a second, this way you have the ability to retreat when you stumble upon some enemy units. If you stumble upon these with your last movement points, you will stay in contact at the end of the turn and will be cut to pieces the next! During the daylight turns, you can use the special recon function of recce units (only the armoured cars). This uses up a number of movement points, but you can see farther and the enemy will not notice you eyeballing them, a very useful function, especially for those vulnerable Soviet units.

Finally, the best way in my opinion is to move the recce units behind enemy lines (I usually try to deploy two armoured cars together, for mutual support and to prevent easy flanking). Operating behind enemy lines gives them a better chance of survival, as the enemy's best combat units will usually be at the front, engaged in combat. In the rear there will be no units but artillery (a prime target!), some supporting units like AAA (anti-aircraft artillery), AT (anti-tank), HQ's and units recovering from losses. With these you can deal as a recce outfit.

The Soviets have a powerful weapon in their artillery, but you have to know where the enemy is, to shoot at him. So I use the armoured car units as eyes for the artillery, spotting behind enemy lines. Finding enemy artillery units behind their lines is a win-win situation most of the times. Either I hit those with my own artillery, score victory points, disrupt the enemy artillery (making it less effective) or destroying it altogether, or I force the enemy to limber his guns, moving away and setting up again. This way they will be unable to contribute to combat for at least a few turns. A secondary effect can be that the enemy moves some fast-moving units away from the front, to catch those recon units in the rear, thereby weakening his assault at the front.

Of course, this doesn't work all the time. But in my last campaign I was lucky to find two unprotected German artillery batteries, fix their positions and destroy them completely with counter-battery fire! The Order of Lenin was send to the courageous commander of the recon unit!

Air units: reconnaissance and air-to ground:

Air recce can be helpful, but in my opinion is flawed in the game. You can send a recce-flight to a certain location and, depending on the visibility, "see" what is underneath you. But not all units are shown and not all of them with all detail. Also, the visibility curiously follows the line-of-sight for the terrain you are flying over and thus isn't the all-seeing eye in the sky it should be.

Still, especially for the German player, it can be of some help in planning an advance. For me, the best use of air-recce for the Germans lies in locating the very powerful Soviet artillery behind Soviet lines, sending in Stukas later or disrupting and destroying this artillery with counter-battery fire. Especially the Soviets will reconsider moving artillery, as setting them up again can take ages (up to 6 turns or more!).

"Not a pound for air-to-ground!"


Air-to-ground is also a very powerful weapon in the German arsenal, as it historically was. But there's a problem with air support, as the points for losing an aircraft are relatively high, it often doesn't pay to send in a flight of Stukas to pound a Soviet position. You might destroy lets say two or three guns, but the loss of one or two Stukas offsets this so much, that you. ll end up with negative points! It still can be necessary to use them, to clear out a vital position or to hit the most valuable unit in the Soviet arsenal: the T-34 tank unit(s). The loss of some Stukas is more than compensated by the reduced efficiency of the Soviet tank forces during the rest of a campaign.

I generally keep the air units in reserve, using them in cases as mentioned above, or if a nice juicy target of opportunity is sighted (artillery units in the very vulnerable "travel" mode).

Roads, railroads and using terrain:

When you take a look at the full Smolensk campaign map, you will see that this part of the Soviet Union wasn. t equipped with a lot of major highways or even usable dirt roads.

There are only three or four direct roads to Smolensk from the left map edge (where the Germans start) and a number of minor ones.

So, using these (Germans) and denying the use (Soviet) is important in conducting operations.

Once the Germans have cleared the roads of Soviet resistance, they can move very fast with their armoured and motorised units and even their foot soldiers (coming in he game later as reinforcements) can make good time on them.

It is thus very important to the Soviets to delay the Germans as much as possible, without excessive loss of units.

The following picture shows some terrain and the use one can make of it.


Fig 3. Defensive terrain

Defences benefit of being situated in wooded areas, in towns and behind rivers (minor ones and major ones). The brown line indicates a possible line of defence that benefits from a number of terrain features: woods, woods behind a minor river, town and town behind a small river and a swampy area in the northeast to prevent flanking movement. This terrain is fairly ideal for defensive operations, if you dig in your forces in the woods and town behind the minor river, an enemy will have to fight against a triple defence enhancements. This will not make your troops invulnerable, but it will certainly keep them healthier much longer than without this bonus. Finally, by blowing the bridges in the town area, you can add to the movement points an enemy must spend to advance. A last resort when everything else has failed, you can move your non-motorised forces in the swamps (area indicated by the purple line) and prevent their destruction by the Germans.

The passageway just north of the swampy area is also ideally suited to lay a minefield in. This will force the Germans either to cross the minefield, at the cost of continuous losses, bring in engineers to clear the field or move through the woods, considerably slowing the German advance.

Railroads:

Railroads can be a genuine force enhancer for the Soviets. It. ll cost you two turns to change over to rail mode (first from normal to travel mode, then from travel mode to rail mode), but once this is done, you can move your forces with ease and speed to wherever the rails go. Reinforcements, coming in at the south map edge, can be in Smolensk by train in 6-7 turns. Had they gone by foot, they wood have spent some 15-20 turns in getting there!

Of course, two disadvantages of rail are: it makes forces moving by rail very vulnerable to all kinds of enemy attack. So, never use rail transport when near to enemy forces. Sadly, also interdiction by air attack can hurt your entrained forces, and there's nothing you can do about that. Secondly, it can take you only where the tracks are leading.

Wise use of railroads can see your troops fight on one front on day one, and on a completely other front by day three of four!

HQ's and their functions in the PzC series:

In PzC Smolensk '41, there are three kinds of HQ's: divisional HQ, Corps HQ and Army HQ.

All three of them are essential for smooth operations in the game. All HQ's have a command range, the Army the greatest range, the Corps the intermediary, the divisional the smallest. You have to make sure that an army HQ has all its corps HQ's within its range and that all corps HQ's have their divisional HQ's within range. Units not in range of their HQ have a far bigger chance of running low on ammo or low on fuel (with reduced combat effectiveness or reduced movement points) and once units become disrupted or are even broken by the enemy, they will be much slower in regaining strength or losing combat fatigue than units who are in range of their HQ. Although it is not easy to keep your units organised during combat operations, it's well worth doing so. Besides the effects mentioned above (low ammo and low fuel), there's an assault penalty for units of different divisions assaulting the same target. Sometimes this is unavoidable, but if you can manage to make assaults by units from the same division, you will benefit from their better cooperation by a much more effective assault.

Time spend on keeping your army(s) organised is well spend. During the night hours/turns, you are able to switch units from one corps to another (so-called "corps attachments"). Because your HQ's are all motorised (using jeeps and other GP vehicles), they can move much faster than their foot soldier units in the divisions. I usually keep my divisional HQ a couple of hexes behind my frontlines, keeping all units of a division within range of the HQ. But a lot of the time in the game, you have units strung out to defend a position on a riverbank or so. Then a number of units are out of the command range of your HQ. Watch your enemy move and try to position your HQ behind your units that are being assaulted or who are in combat with the enemy, that way they can profit from your HQ the best.

Try to position broken units around their HQ in a safe position, far behind your lines. By having them sit on top of their HQ, they will benefit the most from the rallying of their commanders and be combat ready much sooner than units you must do this without their HQ.

Finally, I (mis)use my HQ's for purposes that are legitimate and useful in the game, but unlike any HQ will be used in real combat! Some players might call this a "gamey" tactic. I use them to dig defensive positions for my troops. Because they can be situated a couple of hexes behind your own troops and frontlines, you can position them so that they are occupying a strategic position. By having them dig trenches, your combat units can fall back in prepared positions, instead of on clear terrain.

My triple "rules" of combat.

1. DO THE UNEXPECTED!

This may sound fairly obvious, but there are a lot of PC-generals who will only do the normal , right, and sensible thing: form a line of defence, dig in, site artillery, try to hold back an attacking enemy and fall back in as good an order as possible. Or: attack on a broad front, supported by artillery, trying to force the enemy out of his positions. This is all very predictable and can be useful in a number of situations. But most of the time you can do much better than just sit tight and do what your enemy expects you to do. Even when playing the Smolensk Campaign as the Soviets, the Germans don.'t know where all of your units are all of the time. You can hide units in remote areas of the map, let German forces bypass you and come out of hiding later in the campaign to re-capture cities like Vitebsk, Orsha and Mogilev (all targets very near the German map edge). The Germans cannot afford to garrison those cities with too many units, as he will want to use most of them in the capture of Smolensk and the fighting beyond Smolensk. Remember, the full Smolensk scenario in 170 turns long! There is ample opportunity to harass the Germans all over the map. After a number of turns, you will start to see how your adversary thinks and how he reacts to certain situations. Then use that information to do something he doesn't expect.

2. MATCH YOUR STRENGTH WITH HIS WEAKNESS!

Never match your strength with his; you will be tempted for instance, to counter his armoured thrusts with your own tanks. But that's a trade with very negative results for you, as one or two German tanks will be traded for at least eight or more Soviet tanks. If at all possible, use dug in infantry, supported by anti-tank guns and artillery support to stop German armour. Then use your own tanks on German artillery, HQ's, weakened infantry etc. And if dug-in infantry isn't possible, its probably even better to retreat than to be cut-up by those German panzers, live to fight another day.

3. PLAN AHEAD!

This is like chess; try to think ahead of what will happen in the next couple of turns and what YOU want to happen in those turns. I had a great number of disrupted and broken units after the first 10 turns of the campaign and I placed them in swamp areas to become unbroken and regain strength. There was no rush in using them and they sat still for more than 20 turns. Around turn 35 I could start my counter-offensive with them and re-captured Mogilev. Fighting around Vitebsk continues while writing this!

Very often it is said "no plan of war will survive first contact" and this is very true, but having a general outline of what you want to do and how you want to reach those goals is extremely important.

~ Bas 'De Ruyter' Kreuger

 

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