Scenario Preview, Part One
Fire in the Steppe is a completely new game, using the playing pieces from our old Eastern Front game with completely new map artwork and a new set of scenarios (and battle games to tie them together) to tell the story of the Brody-Dubno tank battles in the opening days of the Great Patriotic War.
That left us with the Romanian pieces from the old Eastern Front, and 24 scenarios. We re-worked the twenty best scenarios of those, and added three battle games, and that gave us Armata Romana, a fine expansion for Fire in the Steppe based on the Romanian Army’s battles during the war’s first year. Let’s have a look at the first chapter:
22 June 1941
On Romania’s northern flank, the understrength 3rd Army faced the much stronger Soviet 12th Army. Even though the Red Army’s Gen. P. G. Ponedelin and his staff faced extreme danger from German flanking attacks, they responded sharply when the Romanians advanced into their former province of Northern Bucovina. Despite German condescension, and the fact that Romania had yet to declare war, both sides proved very willing to spill blood over “national” territory.
The Romanian cavalrymen took the village of Fontana Alba in the morning, meeting 8th Cavalry Brigade’s objectives. But around noon the Soviets counterattacked in force and drove the Romanians back out of the village. The Red Army in this sector put up spirited resistance, but eventually had to pull back due to defeats elsewhere.
The Romanian cavalry are on the attack, with a slight initial edge in numbers and in morale, and a significant advantage in mobility. The Soviets get a strong counter-attack force including a tank (just one, but the Romanians have no anti-tank guns) and artillery.
Night of the Guards
23 June 1941
On the war’s first day the Romanian Royal Guard Division had seized several bridgeheads over the river Prut, for use when the main offensive opened a week later. Fourth Army’s V Corps would cross here, opposite Falciu, and attempt to outflank the Soviet defense of the Cornesti Massif to the north. But Soviet doctrine called for immediate counterattacks to restore defensive lines, including the positions along the Prut. The Soviets had not been caught by surprise in this sector and made furious attempts to drive the interlopers back over the river.
A ferocious, close-quarters clash including numerous incidents of hand-to-hand fighting left hundreds of casualties on both sides. Soviet cavalrymen got very close to the bridge but were driven back by a moonlit bayonet charge by the regiment’s 9th Company that killed dozens of Red Army troops and captured four machine guns and 13 rifles. The Guard kept its bridgehead; the Soviets pulled back to re-form and try again.
This time the Soviet cavalry is on the attack, in a big scenario featuring Romania’s crack Royal Guards Division. The Romanians have seized a bridgehead over the River Prut, and the Red Army is out to through them back across with a mixed force of infantry and cavalry backed by some light tanks. The Guards have adequate anti-tank protection, but there are an awful lot of Soviets.
First Tank Battle
4 July 1941
The Royal Armored Division crossed the Prut River into Soviet-occupied Basarabia on 3 July 1941, and on the next day fought its first tank battle against the Soviet 16th Tank Division near the town of Brinzeni. Romanian morale would never be higher than in these first days of combat, when the troops saw themselves as liberators of Romanian national territory and they had not yet tried to match their Czech-built light tanks against the new Soviet T-34 or KV-1 types.
The Romanians out-maneuvered and out-shot the Soviet tankers, who reacted very slowly to the Axis attack. The Romanians knocked out two T-28 medium tanks for the loss of one R-2 of their own. The Royal Armored Division rolled on toward the Dnester River bridges, but would soon be called away from the advance to help Fourth Army on the Cornesti Massif.
It’s a battle between weak and/or old tanks. The Romanian R2 tanks might as well be R2D2 (they’re Czech-made LT35 light tanks with a 37mm gun) but the Soviet T-26 and T-28 tanks are much slower though they carry bigger guns. Both sides are hampered by the need for tank leaders
7 July 1941
Romanian attempts to force the Cornesti Massif and open the road to Chisinau ran into an elite Soviet formation, Pavel Belov’s 2nd Cavalry Corps (the future 1st Guards Cavalry Corps). With the infantry blocked by torrential downpours and Soviet horsemen, the Romanian high command fed one of their own elite formations into the fight.
The Romanian brigade launched a spirited attack, but failed to dislodge the Soviet riders from their positions. Cavalry squadrons charged and counter-charged in scenes reminiscent of the Crimean War, but at the end of the day the situation remained about the same.
Cavalry against cavalry, what could be better? The Romanians have numbers and some infantry support, but the bar for victory is set pretty high - the Romanians have to not only drive away the enemy horsemen but do so without suffering too many casualties.
8 July 1941
Applying all force to the liberation of Bessarabia, the Romanian high command also called out six divisions of ill-equipped, ill-prepared and over-aged reservists. Only one of these was deemed fit for combat, and sent to the front with III Corps. Crossing the Prut without opposition, the second-line troops found themselves placed in the front line. When the Soviet command realized this, they laid on a fine reception.
Unwilling and unready, the reservists did what they’d been trained to do: follow their leaders. Unfortunately for the Romanian command, the 35th’s leaders headed straight for the rear areas and their men followed as best they could. The division’s artillery regiment, suddenly finding itself in the front lines, fought the advancing Soviets by firing over open sights with Captains Alexandru Borescu and Valerie Negut dying valiantly at their posts. Thanks to the gunners’ sacrifice the division commander, Emil Procopiescu, was able to rally his troops by personal example and form a new line.
This is just a small scenario, with a low-morale Soviet force on the attack against even-lower-morale Romanian defenders. The Soviets have tanks and plentiful artillery; the Romanians have mobs of unwilling infantry. It’s not a pretty sight.
Tank Battle at Orhei
15 July 1941
While other forces tried to gain Soviet attention, the Royal Armored Division’s tank elements swung around and attacked Chisinau’s defenses from the north. Detecting the movement, the Soviet 9th Army command directed its own tankers to counter it. Eleventh Tank Division had the only modern armor in the Odessa Military District, making it the favored unit for high-priority counterattacks. The armor clashed at the small town of Orhei, eight kilometers outside the capital.
The Romanian tankers watched in horror as their 37mm rounds bounced off the thick hide of the Soviet T-34’s. Yet they recovered quickly and out-maneuvered the Soviets to gain shots at the armored monsters from their flanks and rear, and shot up the smaller Soviet tanks that tried to get in their way. By nightfall, the road to Chisinau was open.
The Romanians meet the T-34 in a pure tank battle (nothing on the board but armor). The Romanians have mobility and maneuver on their side; the Soviets have the T-34. Two of them. If the Romanians can knock them out, they’ll be in good shape. They can also try running away from them, but they’re faster than the R2 light tanks.
Gates of Chisinau
15 July 1941
With the Soviet positions in front of Chisinau unhinged by the German LIV Corps’ flanking move, the corps command sent a fast battlegroup drawn from recon elements to try to force a quick capture of the Bessarabian capital. The mixed German-Romanian task force made rapid progress at first, but their drive stalled when Soviet recon elements anticipated the move and blocked the way to Chisinau.
The Axis attempt to speed past the Soviets failed, when a prompt response blocked the road and the Soviet 47th Recon Battalion fought with great spirit. These particular Axis units had never operated together, though the Romanian officers probably had some knowledge of German military terminology from the pre-war training given the Royal Armored Division by German instructors. This did not prove a problem in this action; rather, the Red Army had something to do with the Axis failure.
A mixed German-Romanian recon force clashes with a Soviet recon force. The Axis brothers in arms are trying to get past the Soviet blocking force, who are out to stop them at all costs (Soviet casualties are meaningless for victory purposes, though they still count toward initiative).
And that’s Chapter One. Next time we’ll look at Chapter Two.
here to order Armata Romana and send Armata Romana into battle!
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold resists revision.