A Designer's Perspective
By Brian L. Knipple
To misquote Winston Churchill (and render
his statement more correct in the process):
“Before Alamein there were few victories,
after Alamein there were few defeats.”
The loss of the port of Tobruk in the summer
of 1942 stunned the British and worried the
normally-optimistic prime minister like few
other reverses had. The seesaw nature of the
desert war had seen both sides alternately
advance and retreat, but the Axis breaking
of the Gazala line and the capture of Tobruk
took the British forces in the desert by surprise,
sending the remnants streaming for the Nile
Lost in the defeat were most of Eighth Army’s
tanks and the equivalent of four infantry
brigades, with several others so reduced in
strength as to be useless. Axis losses were
heavy as well, but victory convinced the Afrika
Korps’ commander, General Erwin Rommel,
that little stood between him and the British
base at Alexandria. The Pyramids beckoned,
and with only passing consideration of the
state of his army and logistic situation he
ordered an immediate pursuit of the retreating
Battalions in the Desert
Alamein is a monster game covering the 1942 battle
for Egypt from the end of June to the middle
of October 1942. The game includes the battles
that were fought in that decisive summer beginning
with the 26 June Axis attack on the forward
British position at Mersa Matruh and ending
with the British offensive that drove the
Axis forces west for the final time. Players
can choose single-map scenarios of a few days'
duration or the campaign game covering the
whole nearly four-month period.
Game scale is two kilometers per hex, units
are battalions and companies, and three daylight
and one night turn make up a day. Unlike previous
games using its system, Alamein includes
rules for airpower to support land operations.
Also more than previous titles, the use of
minefields is both large and critical to each
side’s ability to defend.
The game system is that used in the out-of-print Invasion
of Italy, Red Steel and Red Parachutes, as well as the still-available Island
of Death, but with additional campaign
and formation rules. The military units are
mostly battalions (600 to 1,000 men, 12 to
24 artillery pieces or 35 to 55 vehicles)
operating as part of a brigade or regiment
which is usually composed of two or three
battalions. These brigades and regiments are
grouped in twos or threes to form divisions,
divisions in turn being groups in twos to
fours to form corps. Units function at the
divisional level, operating most effectively
in company with other elements of their formation.
Morale is an essential factor in addition
to the standard attack and defense combat
strengths and movement allowance. A unit's
morale value reflects the esprit de corps
of the formation. Morale is important in determining
a unit’s combat effectiveness and will
degrade as the individual unit suffers losses
and the formation has more and more units
at reduced strength.
Blood and Sand
Combat in Alamein comes in three
varieties. First is indirect fire (artillery),
which can be used to assist an attack or defense
or as a means of inflicting casualties and
disorganization on the enemy. Artillery units
are a player’s most versatile in that
their strength can be applied to any hex within
their two to 10-hex range.
The second combat type is anti-tank, the
means by which the defender attempts to destroy
attacking tank units and (optionally) the
attacker fires on defending tanks. Only units
with anti-tank values may fire and only those
with armor defense values may be fired on.
The third and final combat type is general,
in which the combat strengths of attacker
and defender, modified by supply, terrain
and the use of support units, are equated
to odds on a combat chart. General combat
is the only combat type that results in the
forced retreat of enemy units and the occupation
of enemy territory.
Let’s take a look at some of the common
units in Alamein. Contrast typical Italian
and British infantry battalions. Factors are
attack-defense-movement, with morale on the
right side of the piece.
What appear to be minor differences in strength
and morale are in fact significant and make
the British battalion a far more effective
unit. Contrast the British unit with a German
infantry battalion and note the even greater
strength and higher morale of the German.
Armored units use the same factors, with
an armor rating in the upper right corner.
While the German here is markedly superior
in all categories, the British possessed tanks
in such numbers as to be able, eventually,
to offset German superiority.
These are only examples; each country had
far more effective units. In artillery the
British must be acknowledged as the leader.
In armor the Germans reigned supreme. But
the values on the units are not the only measure
of a unit’s combat value. Quantity is
also important and here the British had the
edge. While the two sides had approximately
the same number of formations, the typical
British infantry division has nine infantry
battalions while an Italian or German division
had only six.
Axis numerical inferiority grew as the campaign
progressed, and the quality of individual
units was relied on more and more to counter
growing Allied superiority in men and material.
The availability of artillery ammunition made
a significant difference. While in the end
it was decisively with the British, this was
not the case in June 1942. The ability to
replace losses is critical to an army’s
ability to sustain their forces in the field
while conducting active operations. In the
end the player who most effectively uses his
forces will achieve his objectives.
The formations which participated in the
battle probably included more nationalities
than any other battle of similar size, especially
those in the British Eighth Army.
In the Eighth Army was a New Zealand Infantry
Division, the toughest Allied formation in
the game. Almost as tough, the 9th Australian
Division proved to be a key element in the
ultimate Allied victory. In the opening of
the battle the 1st South African Division
was all that stood between the renamed PanzerArmee
Afrika and the Nile.
Individual Indian brigades fought in several
divisional formations during the beginning
and middle of the campaign, suffering heavy
casualties. The British provided three infantry
divisions, the 44th, 50th and 51st. The first
did not survive the battle, not as a result
of casualties but rather the need for infantry
in the armored divisions; the second never
fought as a complete division, having lost
a brigade at Gazala. Of the four armored divisions,
only three were every really full-strength
and their tanks suffered nearly disastrous
losses more than once. Smaller formations
of the Greek and French forces in exile fought
Containing only two nationalities, the Axis
order of battle included a wide variety of
units in terms of capabilities, being both
the weakest and strongest formations in the
field. While the Italian Army provided the
bulk of the Axis nonmotorized infantry formations,
these were generally the weakest in real strength,
being poorly armed, largely immobile and possessed
of low morale. As a result they often proved
incapable of resisting strong Allied attacks
without assistance from other arms.
Other Italian formations were better armed
and more capable, although each was composed
of only two regiments. Italian armored and
motorized divisions proved equal to the task
until so weakened by casualties that they
were unable to hold the line. Last but certainly
not least are the Folgore,
Italy’s first parachute division. Although
weak in numbers, it was an elite formation
that more than held its own.
The worst of the German units was the 164th
(Afrika) Infantry Division, a late arrival
to the desert and the single Axis formation
that contained nine infantry battalions—and
it was better than the average Allied division.
The German mobile formations were weaker in
numbers than Allied infantry divisions, but
were especially powerful in the attack where
their mobility allowed them to outmaneuver
the British and their tanks allowed them to
overrun all but the strongest position. Better
at taking ground than holding it, the two
German panzer divisions participated in every
significant Axis attack.
Alamein includes six scenarios covering
portions of the battle and a campaign game
covering the whole of it. The smallest scenario
is "Tel el Eisa," an attack by the
9th Australian Division designed to capture
two small hills along the coast. The largest
scenario is "Operation Lightfoot,"
which covers the British attacks that finally
broke the Axis line. Other scenarios include
the fight at Mersa Matruh before Alamein,
the first attack on the Alamein line, and
the battle of Alam el Halfa.
The campaign game begins on the 29th of July
and continues to the 9th of November. It starts
with the Axis attack at Mersah Matruh and
ends (presumably) with the offensive to break
the Axis defensive positions and force their
Players will find that operations are planned
around divisions, even if multiple divisions
are involved. The game rewards concentration
of firepower and shifts of combat odds (from
armor, regimental/brigade integrity and leaders),
and the planning necessary to achieve them
quickly and effectively.
On the defense, minefields and artillery
and anti-tank support are key, along with
regimental and brigade integrity where it
is possible. Operations must be planned around
limits to artillery ammunition and replacements.
Alamein was a grim struggle for victory
in North Africa that would give one side control
of an entire theater of war and cripple the
loser (the British loss of the oilfields further
east would have been disastrous). The British
had to desperately hold on in the beginning
in order to build up and counterattack in
the end. The Axis had to win in the beginning
or just as desperately hold on in the end.
The real test is in how each side manages
to fight so that winning (or losing) the battle
today does not result in defeat tomorrow.
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