Saturday, 6 December 2014

Operation Constellation 13th October 1944 - AAR



This battle was fought solo, using the Panzer Korps rules, and 6mm figures, almost all GHQ, on 1” square steel bases. I used the ground scale recommended for these small models – 1” in the rules translated to 1cm for all purposes. The table was three feet by five. As with my previous fight, Operation Epsom, this scenario is very suitable for solo play, as the Germans have limited options, starting entrenched and moving around very rarely, especially as the British have air superiority. I used a simple fog of war mechanism, playing cards representing the German battalions with some dummies. The potential sites for the Germans are pretty clear – numerous small woods and a few towns. I deployed the cards face down, and only revealed them if they took enough damage to require a panic test, or if there was a possibility they might wish to fire. Not exactly state-of-the-art AI, but quick and simple. 

For those unfamiliar with these rules, the day is divided into two-hour Day Segments within which there are a variable number of games turns. DMs are Disorder Markers, which are the measure of damage on battalions. Too many DMs and it may panic, and after, typically, three panics the formation will retreat off the field. Reserve morale units, of which the Germans had two, are only allowed two panics.

Map of the engagement from Legacy of Defiance
Operation Constellation took place in October 1944, after the failure of Market Garden, as the British attempted to reduce the Maas salient. This scenario, by David Bush, is taken from the Panzer Korps book Legacy of Defiance, a collection of scenarios for Commonwealth forces. It covers the second day of Constellation, October 13th, when British forces were tasked with crossing the river Loobeek and driving on the town of Venray to the south. There are three bridges over the river, but the Germans have wired these with explosives, and the terrain south of the river is dotted with woodland ideal to conceal dug-in defenders.

To win the British needed to have at least three battalions over the river in good order, and at least one intact bridge under their uncontested control. For a major victory they needed to take Venray, about two miles further on. The British had three brigades of the 3rd Infantry Division, each with three infantry battalions. The 8th and 9th Brigades also each had a Guards tank regiment (Churchills) and a regiment of 25pdrs. The 185th Brigade had a scout car Recce regiment, and two artillery regiments – one of 25pdrs and one 5.5” howitzers. They also had four squadrons of ground attack aircraft – two of Typhoons and two of B-26 Marauders.

Venray looking south towards the River Loobeek
 
The battlefield from the west
 To stop them the Germans had a small brigade from the 107th Panzers – one Panther battalion and one Panzergrenadier battalion. The Panzer Korps rules impose a command penalty on very small forces, so to balance this the HQ unit (the Panthers) had five decorated leaders assigned. The other German force was Kampfgruppe Walther, a real mixed bag. They had three Parachute battalions (one Veteran), an SS battalion and two units with reserve morale – a Luftwaffe battalion and a rear echelon Alarmen battalion.

It being October, the battle started with the 0800 Day Turn. Prior to this the British had one round of pre-game bombardment from all their artillery. This inflicted an insignificant 2DM on one blind, but another in a central wood took 6DM. This would have triggered a Panic test, but on turning the card it proved to be a dummy.

Day Segment 08:00 – 10:00. Initiative British. Visibility 30”. 3 turns. The British moved forward with the 9th Brigade on the right (western) flank, 8th Brigade in the centre and 185th on the left, where the woods approached closest to the river, leaving the shortest distance to cover in the open – the 185th had no tank support. All the British bombardment concentrated on the small wood between the roads in the centre, but again this proved to have only dummy occupants. The Germans decided there was no point delaying and triggered the demolition of the bridges – two were destroyed but the explosives failed for the one on the western edge of the board, leaving a route across. Infantry battalions could cross the river anywhere, but at a cost of significant disruption, while vehicles had to use a bridge. Apart from the surviving bridge, the 8th and 9th Brigades each had a Churchill bridging company, though these would take a full Day Segment to establish a crossing. As the British pushed forward there was little action at first – no Germans had been sighted. In the third turn an FO with the 185th was able to shift artillery fire to the easternmost wood. This caused 5DM on the reservist Alarmen battalion entrenched there, but they passed their Panic test, a little unexpectedly.

10:00 - the British have reached the river and started to cross
10:00 - to the east the Alarmen battalion is under fire in the woods
Day Segment 10:00 – 12:00. Initiative British. Visibility 30”. 2 turns. In the first artillery bombardment two of the British regiments found themselves low on ammo. Both the German artillery units were called in by the Alarmen battalion to fire at the 2nd Warwicks now in the open across the river. They took 5DM from the two attacks, and took a Panic test which they failed, falling back. After movement the Alarmen battalion fired at another of the 185th Brigade’s units, the 2nd Shropshires; they caused 3DM and a Panic test, and while they did not break, the Shropshires took 3 more DMs and had to fall back. Then, at the end of the turn, the Shropshires had to take another test, because of their proximity to a panicking unit and this time, encumbered by 6DM, they too panicked. This would not be the last example of the domino effect of panic among units under heavy fire in the open.

In the centre artillery fire has spread panic in the British ranks. The South Lancs have pulled back and stopped bridging
At this point I realised that I could not leave the blind cards entirely uninspected. Any unit can call in artillery fire at the start of a Day Segment, but to shift it in the middle requires a Forward Observer. The Germans only had one FO, who was with the HQ Battalion of KG Walther. After some discreet peeking under cards, it turned out that this hero had positioned his HQ at the very rear west corner of the map, well out of visibility range of any enemy. Moving the battalion forward would have been very foolish, with British Typhoons roaming looking for targets in the open.

The other unit I needed to find was the Panther battalion, the 107th Panzer, because it has a much longer range than the infantry units. This turned out to be positioned in the town of Brabant, which was a stroke of genius by the AI. Visibility in this scenario is limited to 30”, because of hedges, vegetation and so on in the flat Dutch landscape, but this is extended to 36” for units in towns, who have the opportunity to use the houses as OPs. This meant that the Panthers could see (and fire) just across the Loobeek river, while the British on the other bank could not fire back.

The Ulsters cross the bridge, the Scots wade the river - both are taking fire
On the east side of the field the Nebelwerfers struck the 1st Norfolks, who rolled a 1 on their cover die. This means bad things happen to them, they lose one attached company and a Decorated Leader, as well as taking DMs. Infantry in the open roll a D4 as their cover die, making a critical failure very likely. The Norfolks passed their panic test but had to fall back, adding 3DM. To the west the infantry of the 9th Brigade were approaching the river; the 2nd Royal Ulsters crossed the undamaged bridge, while the 1st Scots Borderers prepared to cross the river the direct (and wet) way. An infantry unit can cross the river using its entire movement allowance, but it takes D4 DMs. These cause disorder as normal to the unit, but as they are not from incoming fire they don’t trigger a panic test. The wood on the bank where the Scots were crossing was empty, but the wood behind was now found to contain a Parachute Battalion “Hoffman” – they opened fire on the Scots, causing 3DM but no panic. In the centre the Panthers fired at long range at the East Yorks, causing 3DMs. The British unit had already accumulated 4DMs, and while they passed their Panic roll (just) they added a further 2DMs. The disorder was starting to build up.

Day Segment 12:00 – 14:00 Initiative British. Visibility 30”. Four turns. Time was pressing on past noon, but a good roll gave the British four turns in this Day Segment. However things did not start well – in the first artillery phase two of their units went low on ammo, while the Nebelwerfers struck the East Yorks and three other battalions in the crowded centre of the field. The East Yorks, with DMs building up, now panicked. Over to the West Para Hoffman fired on the Scots again, and this time they were panicked too. 

There was a little good news for the British. A Typhoon squadron attacked the 107th Panzer battalion in Brabant, and eliminated an attached company and a decorated leader. Soon after the Alarmen unit in the woods suffered a similar fate from artillery bombardment. Both units were unlucky, rolling a 1 on their D10 cover dice. Losing their only decorated leader was a blow for the Alarmen battalion – reserve morale units recover DMs more slowly than Regulars. Every decorated leader knocks one DM off its unit each turn, so the Alarmen would now recover only 1 DM per turn, and that only if it remained stationery.

Another salvo from the Nebelwerfers in the crowded centre panicked the Grenadier Guards, and the subsequent tests also led to panic for the East Yorks and the South Lancs. The latter unit had been engaged in bridging the river with its Churchill engineering tanks, but they had to fall back – I decided that they would retain their bridging capability, but they would have to start all over again when they had recovered and returned to the river bank.

In the West the Ulsters had crossed the river and moved onto the flank of Hoffman in their wood. The German paras were facing the Scots to their front – if they had turned to face the Ulsters they would have had to abandon their entrenchments. The Ulsters now charged into close combat, passing a morale test to do so – the Germans could not fire back on the attack coming from outside their front arc. However in another wood behind the Ulsters’ flank Para “Paul” now revealed themselves, firing at the British troops in the open, causing 3DMs and in the subsequent test the Ulsters panicked and fell back, so the close combat never happened.

Further artillery attacks on the battered Alarmen battalion finally proved too much, and they panicked and fell back. Worried that this might lead to a collapse on that flank, the Germans started to move the Luftwaffe battalion (another reserve morale formation) out of Venray and forward in support. They were attacked by a Typhoon squadron, which took damage from a 20mm Flak company attached to the battalion, and the attack had no effect.

Day Segment 14:00 – 16:00 British initiative. Visibility 30”. Two turns. The British artillery was having little impact on the Germans entrenched in the woods, but the Germans concentrated their bombardment on the two battalions trying to make progress on the west side. The Ulsters panicked again, the Scots lost a decorated leader. On the east flank the 2nd Royal Warks struggled across the river – they were disordered but with the Alarmen battalion having fallen back, they were protected by the woods. The Alarmen unit moved back into the wood, but the Warks fired first, putting enough DMs on the German unit to fragment them (6DM) meaning that they could not fire on the British struggling over the river. In the next move the Warks launched a charge – Alarmen, being fragmented, had to take a morale test and they panicked and ran. This meant that the British had a foothold over the river in a spot where the Germans could no longer observe them and so they could not call in artillery. Two other battalions of the 185th Brigade began to move forward to cross. This was important, with no bridge yet in the centre (the South Lincolns were constructing one) and worse to the west, where another salvo from the Nebelwerfers panicked the Ulsters yet again; they had reached their limit and broke. As they were the HQ unit for the 9th Brigade, that force missed a turn, and suffered a permanent Decision Die penalty.
The British start to cross the river as the Alarmen retreat from behind the wood
The Ulsters have panicked once too often and are now retreating, broken
 Day Segment 16:00 – 18:00 Initiative German. Visibility 30”. Four turns. The Lincolns with their Churchill bridgelayer had completed a temporary crossing in the centre, but this was by no means the end of the problems. The Nebelwerfers continued to pound the infantry of the 8th Brigade – the South Lancs panicked again, interrupting their bridging work for the second time. As the Grenadier Guards crossed the new bridge in their Churchills, the Panthers in Brabant hit them at long range, destroying an attached Stuart recon company. Further artillery in the vicinity of the bridge then panicked the Lincolns, who fell back. Then Hoffman fired on the Scots Borderers, who had been pinned down half way across the river, and they too panicked. In the morale phase each of these battalions had to take another test, because of the proximity of a friendly panicking unit, and each failed again – inevitably, with the DMs piling up for both. This illustrates the way panic can spread and multiply among units under pressure. Even the Grenadier Guards had to fall back over the bridge again, although they did inflict damage on the Panthers (another critical cover fail).

The British start to occupy the woods to the east
To the east things were going better. The Warks pushed forward into the wood and found the Alarmen unit fragmented in the open on the other side. They fired and the Germans broke and, because of the closeness of the enemy, they surrendered. Happily the Warks had an attached Military Police company who were able to take charge of the prisoners, thus avoiding two turns of paralysis for the parent battalion – this is the first time in any of my games that the MPs have been able to have any effect. The other significant move was by the Churchills of the Coldstream Guards. Realising that there was not going to be a bridge in their part of the river (the South Lancs having fallen back again) they started to move across to the west flank and the bridge there, helped by a good Decision Die roll and the consequent free move.

The Grenadier Guards have crossed the bridge in the centre, while the Coldstreams head for the western crossing
As the clock ticked towards 18:00 the Scots and the Lincolns halted, back out of sight of the Germans, and began slowly to recover their order. But like the East Yorks of 9th Brigade they would not be fit to participate in any further fighting today. Happily the Grenadier Guards recovered more quickly, and crossed the bridge again, this time surviving the fire from the Panthers and turning towards Para Hoffman. To the west the British infantry had occupied two woods, facing two German Battalions (Luftwaffe and 107th PzGren) in woods opposite them. They traded fire, but neither side could make much impact on the other, in good cover in the woods.
A general view from the south at 18:00
Day Segment 18:00 – 20:00 Initiative German. Visibility 18” (Dusk). Two turns. The 185th Brigade established themselves in the woods to the east, and the firefight continued; both the Shropshires and the Panzergrenadiers were fragmented (6DMs) at some point but neither side could press an advantage. To the west the Grenadier Guards, out of sight now of the Panthers, moved towards Para Hoffman in their wood, but the Churchills ran low on ammo, with no prospect of replenishment so far away from the supply column, which was busy rearming the various artillery units off the board. The Coldstream Guards crossed the intact bridge and advanced towards Hoffman from the other side, and things looked bleak for this unit, but full night was falling and firing ceased.

Finish - west
Finish - centre
Finish - east
Technically this was a British victory, as they had five units across the river (two Guards tank regiments and the three infantry battalions of 185th Brigade), and two uncontested bridges. However it was not their finest hour, and certainly not a major victory – they never looked remotely like reaching Venray. Most of their units spent most of their time trapped in the open in the centre, unable to advance because of the river and under constant bombardment – the Nebelwerfers were particularly deadly with their large beaten zone and Fire Die bonuses. The flanks were much more promising, and the attacks there should have been pushed more quickly. On the German side, most of their units fired very little or not at all, with the artillery being the real threat. Who knows, if they had decided to garrison the forward woods on the banks of the river, they might have been able to hold the British for longer. However they would have been obvious targets for bombardment, even before zero hour – indeed a lot of munitions were wasted on those empty woods. Perhaps an option to explore in a replay.

2 comments:

  1. I've been interested in this game for a while---we'll need to look into it further. Nice AAR and the game looks like a moving operations map/aerial photo. Thanks for posting.

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  2. Thanks, Nathaniel. I do recommend these rules - they are at a level above where most rule sets operate, divisional actions rather than platoons or companies, and sometimes this takes a bit of getting used to, but I think they provide a new experience. On the terrain, as I posted elsewhere, I have always had a clash between beautifully modeled but out-of-scale terrain, which makes it hard to move your figures around, and a functional alternative. I have gone for function, so that the game is not impeded, and I think it looks fine - as you say, like an operational map combined with a high-level aerial view, which is what the general commanding such a battle would have had to work with.

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