When I’m feeling out of sorts, I often like to blow up the town of Hameln. I mean, protect it from being blown up. Which, to the untutored observer without my vast expertise at being run over by notional Soviet tank armies of the mid-1980s, might look very much like the same thing. But I assure you that they are entirely different, and in any event none of it is even a little bit my fault.
Anyway, today I didn’t even want to drop explosive projectiles into a 700-year-old German town. Like most things that end in these kinds of horrible misunderstandings, it started not with war, but with art. In the course of writing up these after-action reviews, I started to look for ways to better illustrate the ending of “Waltz of the Eaglehorse.” Which led to experimenting with small, basic map graphics. Which led to drawing whole new maps of the German countryside with a newly-purchased copy of Ortelius. Which led to replacing all of the art resources in a computer game with custom-made replacements. Simple, really. Could have happened to anybody.
Once I was done with a working map, of course I had to load it. Just to see if it worked, you know.
“Ah, you have returned,” said the little man with the pitchfork who always shows up when I start looking at the wargame directory. “And I see this time you don’t have Ms. Paltrow with you. Good. We need your help. Shouldn’t take more than an hour. There is this ‘brigade task force’ that has misplaced its commander…”
“Why are you making that twisty face when you say brigade task force?” I asked.
“That is how I make air quotes when my hands are occupied with a pitchfork,” the little man explained.
Anyway, you will be shocked to learn that it wasn’t a brigade, that most of the force hadn’t yet arrived, that the war had been going on for two days, etc., etc., etc. Some new things that I learned from another go-around:
- Stay out of Gross Helligsfeld. I have never been able to successfully extract that first tank company (1/4 Pz) when I set them up in town. This time I arranged the platoons individually in various delaying positions further south along Route 217, where they gave a much better account of themselves. I still eventually lost the whole company in the two-kilometer stretch behind Rohrsen when the Soviet side finally got its act together for a third attack, but this is a far cry from the usual outcome.
- Recon matters a lot. Even on the defense. Not losing 1/4 Pz in the first thirty minutes preserved eyeballs that gave me much better information on how the attack was developing in that crucial first hour, when forces are very thin. One happy outcome of the improved reconnaissance was that I was able to observe the enemy regiment’s first motor-rifle battalion in the midst of their bridging operation north of Coppenbrugge, after crossing Route 442. Coincidentally, my artillery had just arrived, so I dropped a neutralizing fire mission on the vehicles paused at the riverbank and killed the Soviet battalion commander, which I think accounted for the sluggish pace of the resulting movement.
- Remember to cross-attach units. In this scenario, I think it is necessary to split the second tank company (2/4 Pz) when it arrives. The reason is that you need to plan for a defense in two directions — the “front door” to the east along Route 217 (Team Amy’s old sector), and the “back door” to the north past Am Schot (where Team Gwyneth failed last time). Your infantry force does not have the firepower to hold either direction by themselves if the Soviets show up with tanks. So you end up with some tanks guarding the front door, while the rest are in town as a mobile reserve (or, if you think the Soviets have committed to the north, actually in defensive positions along the K1). But the tank company’s captain can only be in one place, and units lose effectiveness when they stray too far from their headquarters. The solution? Give the tank platoons that will be separated from their own headquarters to another company commander. In my case, I cross-attached one platoon of Leopard 2s to the infantry company in Team Amy’s sector while the balance of the company headed north.
- Don’t fear the north. If you read my last account, you could be forgiven for believing that the northern route, coming down along the K1, is the thermal exhaust port of the Hameln Death Star, a gaping and very dangerous vulnerability where the bulk of the defense needs to be weighted. In fact it is really a deathtrap for the Soviet side, at least when Gwyneth Paltrow is not overseeing defensive preparations. The village covering the mouth of the valley is ideal terrain for the second infantry company (2/66 PzG, which doesn’t have infantry fighting vehicles but can hold urban ground viciously). If the attacking force has the mass to force entry, he will then have to run a winding gauntlet surrounded by wooded high ground, where he will take antitank fire from above in at least two directions. The heavy Soviet force that attacked in this direction never made it halfway down the valley.
- Weather matters. At around mid-morning heavy rains began and visibility dropped to 500 meters. Now instinctively you might think that this is bad news for the attacker, and maybe it is, but a great deal of the West German force’s defensive power is tied up in the superior long-range killing ability of the Leopard 2 tanks. In fact, I had gotten used to setting up killing grounds at 1,500 – 2,000 meters, and distributed my forces with appropriate spacing. When visibility fell to a third of that, all of a sudden my units were unable to provide the mutual support I was expecting. The deepest Soviet advance was in the east right after the weather soured, when the enemy along Route 217 broke contact after the last of 1/4 Pz disengaged (er, died). Turns out that they were driving for the first bridge on Route 1, but the forces tasked with covering that route couldn’t see that far through the haze from their positions in Afferde. This led to an exciting moment in the rain when my reaction force groping blindly north blundered into the Soviet assault force groping blindly south, and we all laughed and laughed. And then there was a lot of shooting.
In the end we ran into “sudden death” again as the Soviet side lost more than 70% of its force. For the Soviets, it was primarily a tank fight, as I didn’t see much of the motor-rifle troops. In addition to the command and control problems arising from the early loss of a battalion commander, the Soviets had a bad time with mines. At game’s end there still were at least two fresh motor-rifle companies still north of Gross Helligsfeld. After over six hours of fighting. Well, given how Soviet personnel carriers seem to fare in the presence of West German main battle tanks, I wouldn’t be in any great hurry to drive down the road either.
The game awarded me a tactical success. I did take higher casualties than I would have liked, almost all among the two companies equipped with older equipment. 1/4 Pz ended the game in its customary way (completely out of action), but actually drove back the Soviet advance twice. 2/66 PzG lost about two-thirds of its strength blocking the Soviet entry into the valley in the north. In retrospect I wonder if it might have been better to let the Soviets into the valley earlier. Unfortunately the infantry doesn’t have a lot of good options to disengage from the village once they have the tiger by the tail. Which, I suppose, is a classic military problem that is older than even Hameln itself.
I plan to write up the conclusion to “Waltz of the Eaglehorse” in a couple of weeks (I have developed a glamorous new custom map to illustrate that messy engagement). After that I’ll examine the same Eaglehorse scenario from the Soviet side, which is an interesting object lesson in the challenges and opportunities that arise from punching someone in the face while he’s still mostly asleep.