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Strategy in Gazala
By Doug McNair
March 2010

Having OD’d on Avalon Hill’s ancient Panzerblitz as a child, it takes a lot to get me excited about a World War II battle game. So, when I rejoined the Avalanche Press development team and got ahold of Gazala 1942, I expected to familiarize myself with the system quickly and move on to other things. How wrong I was! Gazala is a fascinating game of desperate measures and mad gambles, with lots of replayability. After a couple of run-throughs, it’s among my favorite Avalanche games.

So far, I’ve concentrated on the Opening Moves scenario. The strategic and tactical considerations that make this scenario so interesting are as follows:

Supply

This is THE driving force of the game. The British minefields block the Axis forces from using the road, which is the only supply source available. The minefields extend far to the south from the road at a right angle (with the sea rooting their north flank), so Axis forces circumventing them quickly become Unsupplied, which cuts their movement and attack strength in half. The German truck shortage just compounds Rommel’s headaches, and puts his forces in danger of becoming Isolated (with further strength reductions) the farther they move into British territory, even if their flanks are secure.

At start, Rommel’s preparations allow the Afrika Korps to trace supply up to 35 hexes out from the road, but only for the first eight turns. This means the Korps is in a slow-motion race against time from the get-go. It must round the horn of the British minefields, depend on the Italian XX Corps to clear the Free French from the southernmost objective hex, then slog northward and engage the British 1st and 7th Armoured Divisions. In the meantime, the Italian XXI and X Corps must breach the minefields and engage the forces beyond, hoping to clear them out and establish a supply line of less than 20 hexes to the central objective hexes, so that the Afrika Korps HQ can pick it up when it gets there. If this effort fails, Rommel becomes Isolated after eight turns, just when the British reserves are likely to arrive. This puts Afrika Korps units at one-quarter attack strength/half defense strength against one or more full-strength Allied divisions. Not a good prospect, even for the Desert Fox.


Not activated this turn. An Italian semovente crew awaits orders during the Battle of Gazala.
Variable Activation

In Gazala, both players start each turn unsure of how many formations will be able to move and fight. The Command Limits die-roll at the start of the turn limits how many formations can activate per side, so each side must carefully select which formation chits to put in the cup. For the Axis, Rommel and the Afrika Korps can’t do the job unless the Italians do enough damage to force a supply line through the British minefields. So, the Axis player has to let Afrika Korps sit and wait sometimes, throwing all the Italian chits in the cup and hoping they can clear the Allies out quickly enough for Afrika Korps to have a chance of making it to the central objective hexes before game’s end.

For the Allies, variable activation is only part of the problem. British Indecision causes the Allied player to not even know which of his activation chits are in the cup after he’s put them there. So, he can’t always rely on his front-line units to be able to move and fight when he wants them to. He must therefore let them sit quiet sometimes, even while under attack, and put the chits of his reserve formations in the cup instead. Once the reserves move up and get among the front-line units, then no matter which Allied formations activate, they can block Axis advances.

Rommel

The Desert Fox himself is the main factor giving Afrika Korps a chance to reach its objectives. Rommel can activate on his own, moving and attacking independently with any units stacked with him. The Axis player must therefore stack a powerful force of infantry and tanks (enough to exert ZOC) with Rommel. This lets him rush ahead and blast holes in the Allied lines for the Korps to later exploit, or zip around the Allied rear and cut their supply lines. He can activate again in the same turn when the Korps HQ activates, advancing farther to take objective hexes (and hoping he can hold them until the Korps catches up). However, he too is subject to variable activation (only able to activate on a die-roll of 4-6 when his chit is drawn), so even the greatest general in North Africa is subject to the fortunes of war.

The following partial narrative from a recent game illustrates the importance of supply, variable activation and Rommel.


Bersaglieri man a 47mm anti-tank gun. Libya, 1942.
May 29

Rommel and a stack of Panzers and infantry are in hex 0812, having moved there after the Italians forced a minefield breach and cleared the French out of 0912. With no French ZOC to contend with, he can move freely. His chit is drawn and the die-roll lets him activate. He moves down the track to 0815, blows up the British tanks in 0916, and advances into that hex. The Afrika Korps activates and half-encircles the British forces east and north of 0916, beating back the British 7th Division and its HQ.

May 30

The Axis player chooses not to put Afrika Korps chit in the cup, selecting the Italian XXI chit instead so that it can attack the 1st South African Division guarding the road in hex 2707. This gives the British 7th and 1st Divisions time to regroup from the beating the Korps has given them. Then the 1st South African activates before the Italians can and attacks, killing the Italian engineer unit. XXI Corps is still able to force minefield breaches on the road, but its attacks are ineffective because they have no armor support and the South Africans do. Rommel is unable to activate this turn, so Afrika Korps goes nowhere.

May 31

The Italian XXI attacks hex 2707 again but is still ineffective versus the combined arms of the South Africans. Rommel’s chit is drawn but once again he’s unable to activate. The South Africans attack the XXI regiment guarding the south flank of the attack on 2707 and drive it back. Grant tanks then advance into hex 2706 to threaten the German infantry spearheading the Italian attack. This spells doom for forcing a supply line down the main road. The Italian divisions to the south now must take up that mission.

June 1

The Axis player rolls a 6 for command level, while the Allies roll a 1. Rommel, Afrika Korps and the Italian XX all activate, pushing the British 7th north and the British 50th out of hex 1410. This plus a previous minefield breach into hex 1410 creates hope for an Axis supply line 20 hexes long that Afrika Korps can pick up while assaulting its objective hexes.

June 2

It’s the last turn before Axis supply lines shorten. Afrika Korps and Rommel must make major gains if they're to keep from becoming Isolated. But the British 1st activates first and concentrates its forces in hexes 1415 and 1416, forming ZOC to slow the German advance. Then Afrika Korps activates and envelops the British in a south-pointing semicircle from hexes 1414 to 1417, and kills all British tanks in hex 1415. Rommel, however, is unable to activate, so he cannot exploit the breach.


Benefits of sharing the same hex. Rommel activates the 8th Bersaglieri Regiment’s Col. Ugo Montemurro.
June 3

Rommel and Afrika Korps are now Isolated, but the path to hex 1715 (the last objective) is wide open. Rommel can take it, but holding it will be very hard if he remains isolated, so the Axis player puts Rommel, Afrika Korps, and XXI chits in the cup. XXI must continue to push the supply route out to the Aslag Ridge so Afrika Korps HQ can pick it up there. The British player needs help for the badly mauled 1st and 7th Divisions, so he selects chits for both South African divisions. He also places tank replacements under the 2nd South African HQ in hex 1916 to support the division's attack. The Italian XX activates and kills the British 150/50 brigade in hex 1511, taking control of objective hex 1411 and driving the supply line out to hex 1611. Rommel then activates and charges out to occupy hex 1715. He attacks the British 1st HQ and supporting units in Bir Belefaa and drives them out. Then the 2nd South African activates, moves south and attacks Rommel in force. Rommel holds! Afrika Korps grinds slowly to the rescue but can't reach Rommel due to the ZOC of remaining British 1st Division units in 1415.

June 4

The British 1st Division activates and decimates Afrika Korps’ right flank (AK’s defense strength now being halved due to its Isolation). Rommel can’t activate this turn, but Afrika Korps does, advances, and blows up the British tanks in 1714 that were attacking Rommel. The British move in more forces to envelop Rommel from four hexes, but once more he holds!

June 5

The British 1st Division activates first and kills all of Rommel’s remaining tanks in 1715. Then the 1st South African activates. This is three Allied attacks in a row on Rommel, with no chance to bring in German reinforcements. It’s too overwhelming, and the battered remnants of Rommel’s forces flee south to hex 1514. The Allies advance into 1715, and now all hexes adjacent to it are Allied-occupied, except hex 1614. Afrika Korps is a shambles, there’s no way it can move enough forces into 1614 to mount a counterattack, and the Axis supply line in 1611 is out of reach. It’s the last turn of the game, so the Allies win.

This piece originally appeared in October 2005.

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