An Army at Dawn
Scenario Preview, Part One
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Mike Perryman’s An Army at Dawn returned the Panzer Grenadier series to North Africa with one of the most-requested topics, Algeria and Tunisia in late 1942 and early 1943.
The Americans are at the forefront of the Allied efforts, and they’re pretty bad: even worse than the American units in the early scenarios of Pusan Perimeter. There are a handful of British units that are very good, the Italians aren’t too shabby, and the Germans are at the top of their game. Even the Vichy French usually have more going on than the Americans. But as the game goes on, they get better and better.
Here’s a look at the first ten scenarios; you can read about the others here, here and here.
Fold or Fight?
8 November 1942
Major General Lloyd Fredendall's Center Task Force landed on either side of Oran, Algeria. From three beaches they planned to converge on the city and capture the port. They remained unsure of whether the French would resist their advance or not, since the task force included no British troops. The French held a significant grudge against the British after they sank a number of French ships and killed 1,247 French sailors at Mers-el-Kebir in 1940.
Nevertheless, the American 18th Regimental Combat Team advanced from Z Beach toward St. Cloud. In 1942, the farm town of St. Cloud boasted a population of 3,500 housed in sturdy stone buildings that lay astride the main road east of Oran. Any Allied force advancing from the east would pass through there. Knowing that, the French created numerous fire lanes and reinforced the defenders.
This first real test of arms for the Americans revealed their lack of experience. The hidden French ambushed Company C and roughly handled them as they approached the town, quickly driving them off. A bit later they showed some grit and returned with the rest of their battalion. Again, the French sent the Americans packing. Apparently these Frenchmen did not agree with the Allied pre-invasion scuttlebutt that the French would welcome the Americans as liberators rather than invaders.
Two low-morale infantry forces shoot it out in a small scenario using just two mapboards and about a battalion’s worth of troops on each side. It’s an appropriate first scenario for those new to the game system.
8 November 1942
Earlier in the morning the 1st Battalion received rough treatment at the hands of the French in St Cloud. This was not General Terry Allen's first rodeo, and he quickly organized a stronger effort against the town. While 1st Battalion regrouped and retraced their steps eastward, the 2nd Battalion began working their way to the south to divide the defender's attention. They attacked at about 1530 in the afternoon.
General Allen formulated a good plan but his soldiers were too green to make it work. They pressed the attack to the edge of town, but as more officers fell the men became confused and fell back against orders. Once the French artillery zeroed in, any chance of success evaporated. Despite all the hoopla in training camp, the reversals on this day foretold that many Americans would shed blood before they became a competent fighting force.
This is a surprisingly sophisticated little scenario, with the American player having to set up a two-pronged flank attack with troops no more enthusiastic about the war effort than in Scenario One. But they do have numbers on their side, and enough artillery to squash the French flat if the scenario was about twice this long. The French are in a good position, and include a couple platoons of Order Police, among the most loathsome participants in World War II.
23 November 1942
The United States Army offered a pathetic response to the known and growing might of the German panzer arm. Despite manufacturing the 6-pounder for the British (who'd been fighting the panzers in France and North Africa for two years) the Americans armed themselves with the 37mm gun, already proven inadequate. They created a separate tank destroyer command that fought building the useful M10 because they wanted a totally new vehicle. This meant that the troops landing in North Africa possessed a flock of M3 halftracks mounting a low-velocity 75mm cannon and four wheel drive Dodge 3/4 ton trucks armed with the near-useless 37mm bolted to its deck. Doctrine called for these two lightly-armored vehicles to be held back until enemy armor appeared, when they were expected to “aggressively” attack the panzers. Nevertheless, these stalwarts led the advance off the beaches in Operation Torch. Upon arrival in Tunisia they found themselves providing fire support for the British attempting to evict some fallschirmjägers from the high ground west of Medjez el Bab. Once they accomplished that task they planned to take the town.
The combined-arms team seized the high ground west of town with surprising ease because the defenders held their fire until the British crested the last hill before Medjez el Bab. Their fire forced the infantry to ground while the tank destroyers spent more time dodging enemy fire than shooting back. When a flanking move by the tank destroyers failed, the commanders decided to wait until supporting artillery could be brought up. By that time night had fallen and the infantry went in alone, earning a bloody repulse for their effort.
This is a tiny scenario, one map and a reinforced company on each side fighting for the high ground. But it does send the Brits (with high morale) against German paratroopers (with even higher morale, though not by much).
26 November 1942
Allied command created a tank-heavy regimental group known as Blade Force to move into the Tine Valley and generate a “tank infested area”. Nobody knew what that meant, but it sounded good. In response to an American raid on a nearby Luftwaffe airfield the Germans send in their own tanks to infest the valley.
Despite the well-documented use of long-barreled Panzer IV's against the British since May, word apparently did not trickle down to American tank battalion commanders. The Stuarts posed a poor matchup as Company A lost half of their twelve tanks in the first ten minutes. However, their sacrifice allowed Company B to take the panzers in the rear and eliminate seven of the troublesome intruders. The German commander, surprised and unsure of the presence of more enemies, retired with the Americans in hot pursuit.
An American force with lots of Stuart light tanks and not much else (including no infantry at all) provides target practice to a German combined-arms team including some Panzer IV tanks that will blow apart any Stuarts that come within range. The American player will have to dodge those and fight the weaker German units which, unfortunately, aren’t all that weak.
10th Panzer Forward
1 December 1942
With 135 Allied tanks already east of the town of Beja the Germans realized their dire straits. As their defense possessed no depth, they desperately needed to push the Allies back to gain the room to properly deploy the 1,000 men a day rushing into Tunisia. Stripping the defenses to the bone allowed the creation of four kampfgruppen for this purpose. Two of them headed towards Chouigui early on the 1st.
The lack of infantry made defending Chouigui almost impossible. Blade Force offered what resistance they could and then fell back to join 11th Brigade Group in their defense of Tebourba. The disorderly American retreat exposed the long columns of road-bound support vehicles to deadly attacks by German and Italian artillery and aircraft.
Tank fight! The Germans at least bring a little infantry with them; the Americans and British, none at all. The bulk of the Allied tank force is made up of American Stuarts - weak armor, weak gun, weak morale. But you go to war with the army you have, and the American player will have to figure out how to gang up on the much tougher (but outnumbered) individual German tanks.
Tigers in Tunisia
1 December 1942
General Wolfgang Fischer, commander of the 10th Panzer Division, planned for the two German kampfgruppen in the north to take Tebourba after securing Chouigui and preventing Allied reinforcements from that direction. When those forces became bogged down the General became impatient and ordered his exploitation force into action as well.
In confused fighting the Royal Hampshire’s withstood the best the Wehrmacht could throw at them, including the vaunted Tiger tanks debuting for the first time in Africa. The Tigers should have made the difference but seem to have contented themselves with tormenting the displaced Stuarts. Whether losing their commander to a sniper early in the fighting caused them to lose focus is unknown, but General Fischer raged to his superiors about the low quality of the Wehrmacht infantry late into the night.
Tiger tanks in the desert! Against American M3 medium tanks, it just doesn’t seem quite fair. It’s going to be hard to knock out the Tigers, but the rewards for doing so are substantial so the German player will have to be cautious with them.
Not Ready for Prime Time
2 December 1942
On the previous day the Germans dominated the fighting and, except for the disputed Route 50, boxed in the three battalions defending Tebourba. To open Route 50 Colonel Paul Robinett intended to take command of all Allied tanks in the area and launch a counterattack. He arrived on a ridge four miles west of Tebourba and started to set up his command post.
Unfortunately Blade Force launched their Stuarts against a concentration of Panzer IV’s before Colonel Robinett arrived. Upon his arrival, but before he could assume command, Company E rumbled forward unsupported in a futile effort to reach the rest of their battalion fighting at Tebourba. This meant that the colonel's strike force had shot its bolt before he was able to work up a plan with a chance of success. The Stuarts destroyed four panzers at great cost to themselves while eight Lees burned for no appreciable gain. The remainder of Combat Command B wisely assumed a defensive posture.
Just a small scenario, with a small but balanced German defending force taking on waves of unaccompanied attacking American armor. Weaker armor, weaker guns, weaker morale – what could go wrong? The Americans do have numbers on their side.
Djebel el Guessa
6 December 1942
The British infantry suffered severe damage defending Tebourba. Combat Command B from the 1st Armored Division took their place while the Tommies pulled back for rest and refitting. The Army’s official history states that CCB was “rankled by their recent setbacks” under British command, and sure they would do better under American leadership. Five new Sherman tanks bolstered their confidence as part of the replacements for the numerous Lees already lost. Enemy flares illuminated their positions well before dawn, signaling observant officers that their confidence would soon be tested.
Combat Command B's confidence quickly slipped away and confusion reigned. It took the fallschirmjägers less than half an hour to turn the American flank. This left Battery C of the 27th Armored Field Artillery Battalion exposed. They engaged the panzers with their halftrack-mounted howitzers in an uneven duel for two hours waiting for help, radioing “For Christ's sake . . . please, please send help!” Unfortunately the medium tanks had rolled forward four hours before but foundered in the terrain, not making the six miles to the battlefield for another hour. By that time Battery C had ceased to exist. When the tanks showed up they split into two forces and charged through the valley at full speed with no reconnaissance. Fifteen minutes later all five of the confidence-building Shermans and 13 M3 Lees burned fiercely as German medics tried to save the survivors. Later, another American attack and heavy rain stabilized the situation but the Americans sustained substantial losses.
The Germans are on the attack, with a balanced force that carries a slight edge in numbers and a serious edge in morale. The Americans do get substantial tank reinforcements, and will likely need them to counter-attack and restore their positions.
10 December 1942
Heavy rains over the preceding several days rendered the battlefield too muddy for combat. The commander of 10th Panzer Division, Wolfgang Fischer, deemed the ground finally satisfactory for combat operations but he knew that mechanized forces might still be in trouble if forced off road. With that in mind, he ordered an attack on both sides of the Medierda River. The northern prong advanced rapidly along Highway 50 to just outside the town of Bordj Toum where a minefield hampered their movement.
The Americans fought the Germans to a draw, protecting the bridgehead over the Medierda River and securing Medjez el Bab from the north. While successful, committing the medium tanks to the defense here took them out of position to support the desperate fighting going on to the south.
Another German attack, with some pretty substantial objectives but a large superiority of force will help them achieve it. The American defenders are weak, but thick mud (yes, mud in the desert) will slow down the German attack.
10 December 1942
As part of a concentrated effort to take Medjez el Bab on 10 December the 10th Panzer Division attacked with strong forces on both sides of the Medierda River. Along the southern bank the Germans sought to drive the Americans from Djebel Bou Aoukaz as their first objective. As the Americans’ closest help sat over eight miles away, it looked easy on paper.
The Americans took the best the Germans could throw at them and retained the hill. They were learning a few lessons, but not enough of them yet. That night the Americans began to pull back from the Djebel Bou Aoukaz, and left behind dozens of guns, tanks and vehicles stuck in the mud thanks to poor maintenance and a complete lack of heavy tractors to pull mired vehicles free despite repeated requests for them.
This time the Americans have a more adequate force to defend a much narrower front, which should help their cause. And there’s that nasty mud on the ground again, but no American tanks or air power and very little artillery.
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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.