Hameln, in the Lower Saxony region of Germany, is quite literally a storied place. Most famously, it is the town where the Pied Piper imposed his famous penalty for failing to pay the pest control invoice (though in the age of Boko Haram, I suppose this tale loses some of its charm). During the Cold War, Hameln — with its bridges across the Weser river — was a frequent setting in World War III speculative fiction. One of the most vivid scenes from the superb Red Army, by Ralph Peters, features a Soviet heliborne assault on those bridges — which, unbeknownst to tough, cynical Lieutenant Colonel Gordunov and his parachute battalion, is merely a diversionary ploy. Gordunov, the soldier’s soldier who learned his trade in Afghanistan, dies in the burning streets of old Hameln, holding out for a relief force that his higher commanders never intended to send.
This morning, I returned to alternate-universe Hameln in the wartime 1980s — this time not as an invader, but as a defender. The Matrix-published wargame Flashpoint Campaigns: Red Storm (NATO vs. the Warsaw Pact in Central Europe) includes a small exercise portraying a West German task force attempting to delay some absurdly large Soviet force bent on taking the bridges at Hameln. The scenario is named “The Pied Piper.”
Like most NATO-side situations in the genre, the setup is maddeningly brief. You are half-awake, still have toothpaste in your mouth, have only one pant leg on, and most of your force is not here yet, but there is a huge Soviet formation headed your way so you’d better get going. The briefing says something about the “11th Guards Tank Division of the 1st Guards Tank Army” which doesn’t sound good, but also mentions that the war has been going on for two days and this is a second-echelon attack. Which happens to be late, even. Go figure. Why am I always the last to hear about things?
No matter. I have been given something called the “4th Panzer Brigade Task Force.” A brigade! Awesome, that’s more like it. But the fine print douses my momentary delight with gasoline-flavored water: “brigade” is the new “battalion.” I have two companies of armor and two companies of mechanized infantry. What’s more, fully one-half of the task force, and all of the artillery, won’t be here for a few hours. Typical.
The staff is looking at me like a dog with a bowl in its mouth, so I feel like I should give some orders. At the moment, I have a company of thirteen Leopard 1 tanks (1st Company, 4th Panzer Battalion, or “1/4 Pz”)¹ in the city outskirts, so I send them racing up Highway 217 toward the leftist menace. About 5 kilometers up the highway is the village of Gross Helligsfeld, which has good cover and some nice sightlines to the east. The captain commanding 1/4 Pz tucks his three armor platoons into the village and sets up his headquarters section near the highway, then waits.
The remainder of my meager force consists of the 1st Company, 66th Panzergrenadier Battalion (“1/66 PzG”), with eleven Marder 1 infantry fighting vehicles. Three line platoons of heavy mech infantry (what the Germans like to call panzergrenadiers) with anti-tank guided missiles. I split the force, sending two platoons forward to straddle Highway 1, and retaining the headquarters section and the remaining platoon near the junction of Highway 217 and Highway 1. These are the two main westbound arteries into Hameln, and I figure the Soviets will need to use at least one of them. Finally, I pull my own task force headquarters into west Hameln, against the river. Then there is nothing left to do but wait.
Dawn comes. A self-propelled artillery battery shows up, and then another. Six 155mm guns, for my dedicated use. Some good news. I set them up on the far side of the river, where they can do their mischief at a distance. Then the radio murmurs and the talker informs me that division scouts have reported Soviet vehicles in the eastern minebelts. It’s still over five kilometers away from 1/4 Pz and they cannot see anything yet. But it will not be long.
“Enemy contact.” And they are in force, not just a stray reconnaissance probe. The captain reports a battalion minus of tanks, coming straight west in ten-vehicle formations. Then he barks sharply and the shooting begins. 1/4 Pz works the engagement for almost an hour, ripping chunks out of the Soviet armored spearheads while calling in artillery fires. But they are taking casualties too, and before long an entire platoon is out of action. Time to go, I urge the captain. But it is always an agonizing balance between staying to delay just a little bit longer, and pulling away. And it is not so easy to disengage under fire. The Soviet tank companies edge closer, and I again order a retreat. Go. Now. Down the highway to the next village. You’ve extracted your price. But now the enemy is too close.
It becomes very clear what is going to happen. The Soviets must feel it too, and they storm Gross Helligsfeld with two battered companies. The last thing I hear from 1/4 Pz is the captain’s terse report that he is almost out of ammunition. Then there is nothing but the tortured hiss of the radio jamming as my picture in the village goes entirely dark.
I order all the guns to barrage the last-known positions of the Soviet forces while I figure out what to do next.
The brutal price paid by 1/4 Pz at Gross Helligsfeld has bought me the time and space to reinforce before the Soviets hit our main line. During 1/4’s final moments the remaining two companies of my task force have arrived. I now have a fresh company of powerful Leopard 2 tanks (2/4 Pz) and a somewhat less powerful panzergrenadier company mounted in M113s (2/66 PzG).
After studying the map, I quickly issue orders to deploy the force as follows:
- Two of the tank platoons and the bulk of my Marder-mounted panzergrenadiers are positioned near Afferde, along the south side of Highway 1 facing north where they have a good flanking view of Highway 217. This position provides good cover, an elevated vantage point, and some low ground to the east where I can withdraw the group out of the view of the oncoming Soviets to enter Hameln. I call this group “Team Amy.”
- The remaining Marder platoon and tank platoon, together with the headquarters elements for both companies, are dug-in to a roughly north-south line bisecting the road junctions entering east Hameln. This force guards the “front gate” and is intended to fix the Soviet force while Team Amy attacks the flanks (or, alternatively, cover Team Amy’s withdrawal from Afferde). I call this group “Team Isla.”
- The second panzergrenadier company is deployed in the Hameln city center as the reserve. Because they are mounted in older M113s and not missile-armed Marders, I don’t want them facing any Soviet vehicles in the open. Instead, the infantry (who have manpack antitank guided missiles) will dismount and engage the Soviet force in whatever part of the city they appear. When Team Amy withdraws and Team Isla comes under pressure, I expect to move this group to the east to reinforce and counterattack. I call them “Team Gwyneth.”²
The red monster to the east grumbles and growls. Eventually Team Amy reports vehicles in sight. Wheeled vehicles, not tanks, headed down Route 60, the lesser road running between the two highways. Infantry vehicles, reconnaissance vehicles, personnel carriers. A lot of them. This must be the main body of the motor-rifle regiment.
The tanks of 2/4 Pz open up first, picking off vehicles at a distance. There is little return fire, and none that is effective. The relatively soft personnel carriers are meat on the table for the smoothbore tank guns, aimed by the black magic of the Leopard 2’s fire control system. Vehicle after vehicle burns. I commit the artillery to direct support, and the heavy guns soon add to the carnage. After a half hour, the killing zone along Route 60 is littered with burning wrecks, with no casualties in return. 2/4 Pz, mindful of the fate of its sister company, works delicately, shifting positions preemptively while the enemy is still distant. They have no intention of getting greedy.
Team Amy continues its deadly work for over an hour. The Soviet motor-rifle regiment’s advance has stalled along Route 60, even as some armor formations are rushed forward. This is unusual, as the Soviet Army in the attack values speed and momentum over all else, even at an appalling cost in blood. In order to attack the enemy “thoughout his operational depth,” Soviet offensive doctrine punches you over and over and over again until it makes a hole, then exploits the hole to unhinge your defense from the inside. But it is not working fast enough against Team Amy. Between the suppressive effects of the artillery and the direct fires provided by the Leopards and the Marders, the Soviet formations have been unable to close the distance. And so a regiment burns.
Despite everything, I am still worried. About ammunition, for one thing. Team Amy has been able to generate the time and space to kill, but they are running out of space and there are still forces coming. I order the tank platoons to “screen”, intending to allow them to slip away to the west, reload and reposition, while the dug-in panzergrenadier platoons allow the attackers into the built-up areas around Afferde and take them apart in the streets.
The other thing that I notice is that while the battle to the front has been going well, it has been suspiciously quiet everywhere else. And looking over to the north of central Hameln, where a road snakes between the forested hills toward Holtensen, we are completely blind. It seems like it might be a good idea to send someone north to keep an eye on that route, just in case. I send a platoon from Team Gwyneth to dig in along the road from the north.
I am watching the operation in Team Amy’s sector — 2/4 Pz’s tank platoons are beginning to leapfrog backward to the west, while 1/66’s Marder platoons have contained the Soviets in the built-up areas at the cost of one disabled vehicle — when there is a shout. The panzergrenadiers headed north up the road in Team Gwyneth’s sector have run into a problem. Many problems. Armored problems. And now they are fighting for their lives.
It becomes suddenly apparent why there have been so few tanks in Team Amy’s sector. The Soviets have assembled their remaining armored formations and run them the long way around along Route 423, bypassing the slaughter in front of Team Amy and dropping in on Hameln from the north. And when the panzergrenadier platoon from Team Gwyneth — not expecting heavy trouble — casually drove up that same road, it ran headlong into an entire battalion of T-80 main battle tanks. Had they been driving the better-armed Marders, they might have fared better, maybe. But M113s before tanks are lambs to the slaughter.
This has the makings of an epic disaster. Inexplicably, I have organized nothing in Team Gwyneth’s sector for an attack from the north. In fact, two of the three units on the northern line are headquarters units–including my own. Worse yet, the Soviet tank force driving down the northern road has less driving time to the Weser river bridge — the key objective of this entire defensive operation — than any of my own tanks!
The survivors of the platoon in contact fight like men possessed. Despite the shock of losing all of their vehicles and most of their comrades, they have dispersed into the urban terrain and are delaying the tanks, which seem to be unsupported by infantry. Perhaps they can buy enough time for me to bring enough combat power to bear on the problem. I actually have the forces, I think — they are just all out of place. It will be a question of time.
Team Amy is too far away, and they need to stay in place to deal with the remnants of the motor-rifle regiment. But the tank platoon that anchors the northern end of Team Isla’s line is the most mobile, powerful force I have, and it is relatively close. I also need to reorganize the defense in Team Gwyneth’s sector, but there isn’t time to do anything fancy — move the platoon in the south forward, while ordering the two infantry units up north (including a headquarters section) to dig in and delay the tanks long enough for the Isla tanks to arrive. If fighting from prepared positions inside the city (as opposed to driving blithely up the road), I’m reasonably confident that the panzergrenadiers will be able to cause problems for unsupported tanks. If there is still enough space to conduct a fluid defense. I wince and eye the distance to the bridge.
On paper the plan looks plausible. But time is not on my side in at least two ways. First is just the physics of battle — it takes time to do things, particularly under fire, and moving several different collections of 40-ton armored vehicles from one side of an unfamiliar city to another takes more than expected. Second is the electromagnetic environment. The Soviets are putting so much jamming in the air that you can almost see it. Simply talking to anybody is an enormous problem; I can only get out a few orders at a time. In this case, I need to choose my top four priorities, because that’s all I can squeeze through the electronic noise in the ether. Everything else will have to wait. Meanwhile, I imagine that the orders to that Soviet armored group are simple enough to be communicated through signal flags: drive to the bridge and do not stop unless you are dead.
It’s all about time. It was always about time. I listen impassively as the panzergrenadiers struggling to hold on in the north finally go off the air. Thirty lives for thirty minutes. Why isn’t that tank platoon moving? They need to move. There is no time.
Team Amy: “Enemy contact. Tanks. They’re surging.” A pause. “Controllable. I think.”
Team Isla (nervously): “I think I see movement to your north. They’re bypassing you to the north.”
Team Amy: “Engaged to my front. I can’t see to the north.”
Team Isla: “Okay, enemy PCs on Highway 217, entering my kill box. Engaging.”
The attack to the east hits Team Isla hard, for the first time. The panzergrenadier platoon at its center is well dug-in and eventually stops the attack with minimal losses. But amidst all of the shooting, the tank platoon at the end of the line — the one that really needs to be headed to the west as quickly as possible — is not moving. By luck or intention, he appears to have been fixed by the enemy attack, and I cannot get through to him.
Team Gwyneth: “Tanks. Too many to count, at least a company driving down the road. 22, where are you? If you’re not here in five minutes don’t bother coming.”
Slow! Team Gwyneth’s third panzergrenadier platoon isn’t moving quickly enough either. It dawns on me that it’s not going to be enough. In the end, the Soviet way of war — “speed, shock, and activeness,” in Ralph Peters’ novelistic formulation — overcomes their horrendous losses. Just as it was designed to do. Given another two hours I could stop them. But I do not have another two hours.
Ultimately there is but a single panzergrenadier platoon and its company headquarters standing between the fast-moving Soviet armor and the bridge. Neither the third infantry platoon nor Team Isla’s tanks ever arrive. 2/66 PzG’s threadbare lines collapse. By 1210 there are Soviet tanks on the Weser, overlooking the eastern bridgehead. Admittedly, the Soviet attacking force has been mauled, with most of its four companies reduced to single platoons. But I run out of time and space before they run out of tanks.
I’m not sure if I will be able to dislodge them from the bridgeheads, even given another few hours to organize my forces. On defense, my outnumbered force has enough combat power to eviscerate a regiment. But I don’t know for sure that I have enough mass to succeed in an offense. A bright spot: it looks the Soviets have brought no supporting infantry. So maybe.
But the point shortly becomes moot. One of the basic parameters of the scenario is that when either side suffers more than 70% casualties, the game comes to an end. That last lunge by the Soviet side with the fixing attack on Team Isla, together with the grinding, bloody work necessary to get his tanks to the bridge, finally bleeds him out. Unfortunately this “victory” doesn’t help me, as it robs me of the opportunity to reorganize and counterattack. But those are the breaks.
My losses are relatively light, and many of my disabled vehicles are repairable. The Soviet force has been effectively destroyed. If you look at the screenshot above, each tiny red cross represents a Soviet vehicle out of action, which provides a hint into the ferocity of the fighting — not only along Route 60, but during the last “bypassing surge” against Team Isla’s defensive line, and also in the bitter death struggle of that single platoon west of Am Schot. From that perspective, I have done well. But I have allowed the Soviets to take too many objectives. As a West German commander fighting on his own soil, I am expected not to give up territory. In the end, the game rates my performance as “tolerable” and awards me a draw.
I made large mistakes. At the start, had I not left 1/4 Pz in contact for so long they might have survived their encounter with the leading formations. The lesson is that when you want units under fire to break contact, it is better to simply change their state from “hold” to “screen” rather than create direct waypoint orders, which seem to take longer to process. Leaving the reserve sector completely unorganized was a particularly stupid error, paired with bad luck. I had just assumed that ATGM-armed infantry in an urban environment could handle whatever showed up, without much effort on my part. But nothing is as easy as that. When I finally did decide to put the northern route under observation, I was sloppy in sending the panzergrenadier platoon in a vulnerable travel formation, and unlucky in sending them at a time when an enemy tank battalion was headed down the same stretch of road in the opposite direction.³
But perhaps the strongest lesson is that one needs to do things early, because even mildly complex things cannot be done quickly once you are in contact. This is particularly true for wargames that model command and control difficulties (whether through “orders delay” or “radio jamming” or both). Keep it Simple, Stupid, is a familiar truism; but its corollary is that you also need to arrange your affairs so that it is actually possible to deal with things simply.
And so that’s my contribution to the fictional annals of Hameln.
¹ I am aware that these unit designations (and this order-of-battle more generally) are probably ahistorical for the Bundeswehr in the 1980s. The West Germans were very orderly about unit designations, and battalions generally took their designations from the brigades of which they were a component (e.g., 20th brigade would be comprised of the subordinate 201st, 202nd, 203rd, etc. battalions). Weird numerical untidiness in unit designations is more characteristic of the U.S. Army.
² I also am aware that Gwyneth is not really a redhead. Well, whatever.
³ Okay, maybe it was bad luck to name this force “Gwyneth.”