Last year, a few of us from the Reigate club designed and organised a one day WW2 game at the Wargames Holiday Centre using Rapid Fire rules. To save set up time we used our own troops and vehicles as they were already organised for Rapid Fire rules.
The large playing area available at the WHC has always impressed us so the aim was to make maximum use of it. We therefore opted for a game set during the exploitation phase of the epic Bagration offensive on the eastern front in 1944. Large Soviet armoured forces racing forward and opposed by German panzer forces being rushed to the front to stem the “red tide”.
For those of you who like the “nitty gritty” the next bit sets the scene and is the scenario writers historical briefing together with map. For those of you who like the action and pictures you can simply move on!
Crossing the Berezina 30th June to 2nd July 1944
Exactly three years after the German invasion of Russia, Soviet forces began a major offensive that would liberate an area from the Dnepr to the Vistula in one campaign. This was Operation Bagration and it was launched on June 22nd 1944.
Partly due to a vast superiority in numbers of troops and partially due to Hitler’s hold fast orders, German forces in the Vitebsk, Orsha and Mogilev areas were crushed before they could take up meaningful defence lines to their rear. “Moving pockets” were formed by the survivors in the hope that they could fight their way out of encirclement. In the north, 3rd Panzer army was effectively eliminated before the end of June as Hitler ordered it to hold on to Vitebsk. In the centre, 4th Army had both it’s flanks turned at Orsha and Mogilev before it could make good it’s escape and the survivors began a fighting retreat towards Borisov on the Berezina. Hitler continued to be a hindrance to the survival of his armies as he believed that this was a diversionary attack that would soon run out of steam. Instead of this attack on Army Group Centre, he believed the Soviets planned to launch their main attack on Army Group North Ukraine. So he would not release more than a handful of troops to block the powerful Soviet thrusts that were obviously aimed at Minsk.
As town after town fell, OKH was finally able to convince Hitler that some reserves would have to be sent to Army Group Centre to avert a complete collapse. The transfer of the powerful 5th Panzer Division to Army Group Centre was only just in time. The Infantry elements and their equipment were the first to arrive on the Berezina, joining the Tigers of the 505th Battalion, in the area to the north of Borisov. The panzers of the division were the last to be transferred as it took longer to prepare them for the long train journey from Poland.
By the end of June the armoured spearheads of 3rd Byelorussian Front had broken out of the front line battle and began the exploitation phase. Even the infantry forces of Soviet 5th Army were overtaking the rearguards of German 4th Army. The retreating German forces were heading towards the Berezina crossings at Borisov in much the same state as Napoleon’s forces had headed there 132 years before. The massive numbers of retreating troops made a demoralizing sight to the Panzergrenadiers of 5th Panzer Division, ordered to hold the crossings to the north of Borisov. Borisov itself was being held by three lightly armed security battalions, whilst the last reserve of 3rd Panzer Army, it’s rearguard 11th Infantry Regiment, crossed the bridge there. Soon after, Soviet scouts started to appear amongst the German refugees and the decision was taken to blow the bridge.
As 5th Panzer was deployed on the northern approaches to Minsk, so the under strength 12th Panzer was deployed on the southern approaches. Realizing that they would be in a fight for their lives, Army Group North Ukraine attached the newly re-equipped 49th Panzerjaeger Battalion to the 12th, transferring it from 4th Panzer Division. The advance elements of the Division only arrived just in time to begin the defence of the Berezina.
For their part, the Soviets had brought forward 11th Guards Army with two whole Tank Corps, the 29th and 2nd Guards in the lead. Supporting that was the 5th Guards Tank Army with three Corps of it’s own. On 28th June, there was some skirmishing between 5th Guards Tank Army and the German Tigers of the 505th. Although the Tigers took a heavy toll of the lend-lease Shermans, they could not hope to stop such a huge force as it swung further to the north of Borisov looking for river crossings.
By 30th June, a German defence of sorts was in place along the Berezina around Borisov whilst three Soviet Corps had taken up position ready for a dawn crossing. Further German troops would arrive, but would they be in time?
Cross the Berezina and drive towards the western edge of the map, heading for the German supply base and transport hub at Minsk. This will complete an encirclement of all the German forces to the east of the city. To create a complete encirclement, both Tank Corps must exit units from the western edge.
Prevent the creation of the pocket east of Minsk in order to save some forces for a new defence line further to the west.
The initial Soviet dispositions were as follows:
On the right 2nd Guards Tank Corps was poised to cross the Berezina. This was a powerful formation and at it’s heart were three full strength tank brigades. For quick exploitation over the difficult terrain in the area the 4th Guards Cavalry Regiment was attached.
In the centre 45th Rifle Corps was given the job of clearing Borisov and Studenka whilst the mobile forces completed the encirclement
On the left 29th Tank Corps was deployed. This formation had three tank brigades but only one had integral infantry, however it did contain the 4th Mechanised Brigade and this gave the Corps a highly mobile infantry force.
As usual there were plenty of support units too numerous to mention
On the German side 5th Panzer would enter the table on the German left and 12th Panzer on the German right. In the centre around Borisov and Studenka the 281st Security Division and remnants of the 14th Infantry Division awaited the Soviet onslaught. They had some strong support units notably 560th Schwere Panzerjaeger Battalion with two companies of Nashorns.
The game opened the Soviet flank forces in the centre crossing the Berezina. This assault was fiercely contested with the lead rifle division the 159th suffering grievously. Slowly a bridgehead was gained and supporting light tank battalion equipped with lend-lease Valentines and T70s then moved across the ford opposite Studenka and the fordable river around the blown bridge.
Once the bridgeheads were secure the supporting 16th Guard Rifle Division was moved across along with the 21st Heavy Tank Regiment equipped with KV1s and KV85s to begin the breakout into the towns. As you can imagine this was a closely fought and confused action which afterwards the participants could hardly remember what happened and when! This action went on for the rest of the day.
On the Soviet right the 2nd Guards Tank Corps started to cross at the two fords with the 25th and 26th Guards Tank Brigades. Resistance was light and once the far bank was cleared the 2nd Guards Recce Battalion was released to probe forward and the two tank brigades followed. As they pressed forward they encountered elements of 1st Battalion 31st Panzer Regiment 5th Panzer Division, equipped with Panthers!
This powerful formation took up a holding position on the high ground to the north east of Logoysk and was supported by the 288th Army Flak Battalion equipped with the dreaded 88mm flak gun. The Soviet advance stalled.
Whilst the Soviet advance forces had been probing forward the remainder of 2nd Guards Tank Corps had crossed the river. The Soviet commander made his decision. He would screen the Panthers with his supporting SP anti tank regiment and light artillery regiment. His reserve 35th Tank Brigade and the leading two other tank brigades would shift the axis of their advance to the south west heading for Smolevichi. The 4th Guards Cavalry Regiment would assist this advance by moving swiftly through the wooded areas.
The result of all this was that a huge tank battle took place east of Logoysk and Smolevichi. As the Soviets arrived in the area they were met by Panzer IV equipped 2nd Battalion of the 31st Regiment on their left and on the right by the Tigers of Schwere Panzer Abteilung 505. In the meantime the arriving German Panzer Grenadiers and Soviet Cavalry and Motor Rifle troops both headed for the shelter of the woods to escape the maelstrom and fight their own confused chaotic battle!
Strangely the commander of 5th Panzer proved reluctant to release his Panthers from the strong position on his left to support German forces in the centre. When the 3rd Battalion arrived he was happy to release it and despatched it towards the centre. The only problem it was equipped with ex Italian Carro Armato L6/40 tanks!
It soon became obvious to the German commander the Soviets were not going to oblige him by “charging” his perfect A/T position. When the Soviets scored a few lucky hits from their engaging A/T forces on his beloved Panthers his mind was finally made up and two companies of Panthers moved towards the centre.
This was just in time as the Soviets had been gaining the upper hand but with the arrival of the Panthers as darkness fell any hope of the Soviets taking Smolevichi vanished. However, the Soviets had cut all the roads in the northern sector to Borisov and Studenka.
We must now turn to the action on the Soviet left. Here the crossing had been conducted as easily as on the Soviet right and the leading tank brigades were soon fanning out, taking Cherven, with the mechanised infantry following on behind. One of the first German units to arrive was the 2nd Panzerjager Battalion of 12th Panzer Division, this unit was equipped with Stug III and IVs. Initially it had been placed in a defensive position covering Smilovichi.
At this point the German commander in this sector spotted a gap in the Soviet lines, the road to the east up onto the ridge was not occupied. He charged down the road into this gap with the Stug battalion, then turned and fired into the flank of one of the Soviet tank brigades. If this fire had been stationary it may have been deadly to the Soviets but as the Stugs were moving their aim was bad and the damage inflicted was light.
The Soviet commander turned the tank brigade and with another tank brigade supporting proceeded to snuff out this impetuous advance.
The bulk of 12th Panzer had now arrived and succeeded in establishing a coherent defensive line based around Smilovichi and the woods to the north and south. A costly tank battle was fought to the south of Smilovichi. As the Soviets attempted to break through, whilst 48th Mechanised Brigade engaged the Panzer Grenadiers of 5th Panzer Grenadier Regiment around Smilovichi. The Germans just held on but both sides had suffered horrendous losses. The Soviets had succeeded in cutting all the roads in this southern sector to Borisov and Studenka.
The garrisons in Borisov and Studenka would not be relieved, however, the German had bought themselves time by halting the Soviet advance westwards, albeit at a considerable cost.
All in all, this was a great days gaming which exceeded our expectations. The size of table (27 x 15 feet) and great terrain available at the Wargames Holiday Centre took the game to another level. The players particularly commented on how the terrain “flowed”, difficult to explain, but it just seemed so much more natural than the usual wargaming terrain.
We also proved that a perfectly good game could be fought over just one day, providing the scenario is right and the game properly managed.
Thanks to Mark Herdman the “brains” of the club for organising the scenario and coping so well with the late changes that were thrust upon us at the last minute by circumstances beyond our control.
Finally, many thanks go to Mark Freeth for his excellent hospitality and giving up one of his free days to help us.
We hope to organise a further Rapid Fire game at the centre in the autumn of 2012. The leading contender for this is a crossing of the Rhine game set in 1945. The Germans will be beefed up to provide balance and this gives us the opportunity to have some late war “stuff” out. With the Paratroop drops and amphibious assault as well it has all the ingredients for a good game.
Experience of the Rapid Fire rules would not be essential, we are well experienced in balancing games to suit different levels of experience.
So watch this space for further details. Come on you Rapid Fire and other WW2 players you know you want to!