Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Tel el Eisa AAR

Tel el Eisa AAR February 2015
After a couple of Panzer Korps (PK) battles in North West Europe, I moved a thousand miles south (and two years back in time) for a Western  Desert encounter. Although I have started collecting figures and models for this theatre, I have not built up a big force, and many of the figures in this battle were substitutes wearing khaki or grey instead of desert sand.  This battle was fought solo, using the PK rules, and 6mm figures, almost all GHQ, on 1” square steel bases. I used the ground scale recommended for the smaller models – 1” in the rules translated to 1cm for all purposes. The table was three feet by five. In practice it was only about two feet wide where all the fighting took place, with the Mediterranean Sea intruding from the north, and a rim of salt marsh. 

The battle of Tel el Eisa was part of First El Alamein; it took place after the first German attacks had run their course, and a fresh Australian Division (9th), supported by 1st South African Division, was tasked with taking two hills (Tel el Eisa and Tel el Makh Khad) which were occupied by Italian troops. Historically the Commonwealth troops chased off or captured many Italians, and then held the objectives against a German counterattack.

Scenario Map
The main defensive unit was the Italian 60th (Sabratha) Division, with two regiments (4 rifle battalions), all with Reservist morale, plus a single Bersaglieri battalion. They were supported by a motorised regiment from the 102nd Trento division – these were Regulars. There were also two 75mm artillery regiments. To the south west, off the map, was a German Kampfgruppe, with five motorised infantry battalions, an armoured car unit and another artillery regiment. These would arrive some time after 10am under the normal PK reinforcement rules, which allow an increasing arrival chance in each successive Day Segment.
Italian front line initial positions - looking north towards the Med
Initial Italian deployment - looking west.
Initial Italian deployment - from the south-west
The 9th Australian Division had three Veteran infantry battalions, 32nd Royal Tank Regimant with Valentines, 25pdr Howitzer support and 9th Cavalry Regt, with two Bren Carrier companies and a Crusader II company. In PZ a battalion takes its statistics from the majority of its core companies, so this one was effectively a carrier battalion. The Australians would be attacking on the right of the UK line, the north, near the coast. The 1st SA Division would be arriving to their left, but they were also counted as reinforcements, and would have to dice for arrival. The South Africans would bring three more infantry battalions, a Recon regiment with Humber A/Cs, and more 25pdrs.

For the first time in my PK battles, both sides had significant air forces. The Commonwealth could deploy two squadrons each of Hurricanes, Kittyhawks and Bostons, while the Axis had Bf-109G and MC 202 fighter squadrons, plus two Stuka squadrons. The air battle is quite detailed. At the start of each day segment, each side commits fighters to CAP, and also allocates ground attack planes to one of the turns in the upcoming segment. If both sides commit fighters then these battle it out, and the victor will be able to attempt to intercept enemy planes if they execute ground attacks in the coming turns. It’s quite hard to remember who is ready, who is rearming and who is arriving on which turn, so I made myself a player aid with boxes to keep track of it all.

The off-board airfield play aids
Day Segment 06:00 – 08:00. Initiative British. Visibility 18”. 3 turns. This first Day Segment represented the half-light of dawn – visibility was reduced to 18” and there was no air activity. The 9th Division moved forward with the Valentines of the RTR on the right (north) flank, the three infantry battalions next, and the carrier regiment (9th Cavalry) to the south. The British artillery had good intelligence about the Italian positions, and was able to bombard them, though with a -1 to their die roll. 

The British had decided to try to break through initially to the north, where the Bersaglieri  were positioned between Tel el Eisa and the marshes. Although they were regulars, the Bersaglieri were not as well entrenched (medium cover, while the other Italian infantry were in hard cover). In the first two turns the British off board artillery hit the Italians, but the damage was minor, 1-2 DMs which were quickly removed. In these turns the advancing Australians were outside visibility range, but in the third turn the Valentines were in sight of the Bersaglieri – they fired, with no effect on the target, but the tanks found themselves low on ammo. This means that they will fire at reduced effect until a supply column can reach them.
08:00 - the Australians advance

08:00 - Australians advance - view from the south
Day Segment 08:00 – 10:00. Initiative Axis. Visibility unlimited. 1 turn. With the weaker Italian general winning the initiative, and rolling low, there was only going to be one turn in this Day Segment. The South Africans could have arrived, needing a 40% chance, but rolled higher than that. Several squadrons turned up on each side. The MC 202s took on the Kittyhawks, and after a number of rounds the Italians prevailed, with the British fighters retiring with 11 Air Damage Markers. However the Bostons then drove off the Italian fighters, also with considerable damage.
In the bombardment phase the Italian 75mm howitzers caused 2DM to the Australian 3/26 battalion, and a Stuka squadron added 1DM, with the subsequent morale check adding one more. The British 25pdrs hit the Bersaglieri for 3DM, and three fighter/bomber squadrons caused 5DM. The result was panic and the Italian troops fled their trenches. Apart from this there was little action – the Italian infantry were mostly not yet spotted in their dug-in positions, and the advancing Australians were still out of range for the infantry.
10:00 - the South Africans arrive
 Day Segment 10:00 – 12:00. Initiative British. 2 turns. The South Africans were now on a 45% chance to arrive, and this time they succeeded. The German Kampfgruppe had its first opportunity to arrive, a 40% chance, and they got lucky straight away – so both sides had their reinforcements available. In the air both sides committed CAP squadrons – the British were Kittyhawks, the Germans were Bf -109Gs. Rather surprisingly the Kittyhawks got the initiative and drove off the German fighters. In the first turn the British artillery hit the Bersaglieri, now out in the open, and caused further panic. Fire was exchanged between the entrenched Italian infantry and the approaching Australians, to relatively little effect. The biggest impact, in fact, was when the Italian 1/86th rolled poorly on their fire dice, indicating potential ammo problems, and then rolled a six, leaving them out of ammo entirely. This was a big problem because in this scenario the Axis forces have no supply column.
The German reinforcements arrive
German reinforcements - KG Keihl covers the flanks of Tel el Makh Khad
In the second turn a Stuka squadron arrived, and in another surprise result, they drove off the Kittyhawks flying CAP. They then bombed the 7th/8th Artillery, causing 2DM. In the bombardment phase the 1/86th were hit twice, and both times rolled a 1 on their cover die (a D10 because of the heavy entrenchments.). This left them with 6DM, and a morale roll forced them to fall back. In the firing phase the Bren Carriers of 9th Cavalry hit them again, causing a further 3DM and they now panicked. The rest of the Italian infantry were keeping up fire on the advancing Australian infantry, who were now starting to accumulate a few DMs, but for now their morale held firm. The German Kampfgruppe had arrived from the south west, but they rolled 1 on their Decision Die on both turns, so progress was slow.
11:00 - Stukas attack the 25pdrs of the 7th/8th Artillery

Situation at noon, looking west
Day Segment 12:00 – 14:00. Initiative Axis. 2 turns. The CAP fight saw the MC 202 squadron, still with 7 ADM from the earlier engagement, take on a fresh Hurricane squadron, and the Italians were quickly sent packing. The Hurricanes then drove off a Stuka squadron in the first turn, while Allied Bostons put 2 DMs on the unlucky 1/86th. Artillery then added another DM, and with three DMs in one phase the infantry had to take a morale check, leading to a further panic. As Reservists they are only allowed to recover from panic twice, so this was their last chance – the next one would be permanent. The British supply column reached 32nd RTR close to Tel el Eisa and they were back to full ammo. However the 1/85th, occupying the hill, fired at the tanks, who rolled a 1, losing them 5DM in total (including the morale test) and killing a Decorated Leader. Just to the south the Italian 2/85th also had success, hitting 3/26th Battalion for 3DM and causing panic.
Situation after noon from the east
After noon - from the south west, as the Germans advance
After noon - Tel el Eisa and the front line
In the second turn Hurricanes struck the 1/86th, and they panicked – so their battle was over and they headed for the rear. However the German artillery was now in action, and their first shots struck three Australian battalions crowded close together, forcing morale checks on two of them. To the south the German armoured cars had reach the east end of Tel el Makh Khad and fired on the Humbers of 3rd Recon, suppressing them. Things were looking relatively good for the Axis, but then 32nd RTR attacked 1/85th on Tel el Eisa; the Italians rolled a 1 on their cover die and then panicked, leaving their trenches, so suddenly one of the main objectives was open to be captured.

KG Keihl faces the advancing South Africans
Day Segment 14:00 – 16:00. Initiative British. 3 turns. In the air the battered Bf-109s were driven off by another Kittyhawk squadron. Bostons and one British artillery regiment attacked the 1/85th, who had fallen back from Tel el Eisa, but did not force a morale check. Two more regiments bombarded the 2/86th, who were still in their trenches on Tel el Makh Khad. They took 3DMs, plus two more from the morale check, but they held firm in cover. However to the north the RTR fired again at 1/85th, now in the open, and panicked them, while 9th Cavalry attacked 2/85th and panicked them as well. Contagion now took over, as the effect of being close to panicking units made things ever worse. 1/85th broke entirely, 2/85th and the Bersaglieri both panicked again. In the next turn artillery fire broke the 2/85th, and now the German reinforcements were battling forward through a stream of retreating allies.
The Valentines capture Tel el Eisa
The Australian infantry was still struggling forward; in the open under artillery bombardment, they had to keep stopping to recover disorder. A unit recovers an extra DM if it does not move in a turn, and it is important to avoid a steady build-up of disorder. The South Africans were also making slow progress against the southern hill, as the armoured cars of KG Kiehl were covering the lower slopes. However with the Italians to the north now broken, the carriers of 9th Cavalry were moving against the flanks of the infantry on the hill (2/86th). Then, in the last turn of the segment, two of the SA battalions hit KG Kiehl for 5DM and surprisingly the Elite unit panicked.

16:00 - South Africans close in on Tel el Makh Khad
The Australians consolidate on Tel el Eisa
Day Segment 16:00 – 18:00. Initiative British. 1 turn. A Hurricane squadron drove off the Italian MC 202 CAP, and then more Hurricanes attacked the Bersaglieri. They broke this unit, which in turn meant that the Italians force group was broken. Their intrinsic command level is only 35%, making them very fragile, so now all the Italian troops started to withdraw. The Valentines established themselves on Tel el Eisa, and as British artillery swept the German infantry struggling across the open ground in the valley, it was clear that the Germans had little hope of assaulting the hill.

The Italians in full flight
Day Segment 18:00 – 20:00. Visibility 18”. Initiative German. 2 turns. With twilight falling there was no air action. The British artillery concentrated on the most advanced German infantry battalion, 1/361, and caused it to panic, making it absolutely certain that Tel el Eisa would not be assaulted. On Tel el Makh Khad 2/86th was retreating slowly, under pressure from the carriers and South African infantry moving forward after the departure of the armoured cars of KG Kiehl. In the final turn the carriers hit 2/86th for 3DM and they panicked away, leaving the hill in British hands.
With the capture of both objective hills, and the breaking of the Italian force, this was a complete victory for the British. It was a little closer than it seems, though – both the Australian and South African infantry had real problems advancing in the open. The key units were the armour, especially the Valentines of the RTR. The Italians were also quite unlucky – several units in heavy entrenchments rolled a “1” on their D10 cover die, and once they had retreated out of cover they were very vulnerable. The many Reserve morale units also gave problems, being much more fragile, as well as less effective in firing.

Final positions - Tel el Eisa
Final positions - Tel el Makh Khad
This was another fun battle, and very different from the previous one in the North Western Europe theatre, with its close cover and limited lines of sight. Out in the open spaces of the desert, infantry are vulnerable, and the armoured units can make a crucial difference.

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