Fire in the Steppe:
The Battle, Part Two
Panzer Grenadier: Fire in the Steppe tells its story – that of the Brody-Dubno tank battles – through its scenarios. After dozens of games and books and thousands of scenarios, I’m pretty sure that Fire in the Steppe is the best Panzer Grenadier product we’ve released to date.
In Part One of this series we looked at the background of the battles and the situation on the left flank of the German advance; today we’ll preview the eight scenarios of Chapter One.
Children of Vienna
22 June 1941
The Austrian 44th Infantry Division began Operation Barbarossa as part of XXIX Corps, deployed along the border just south of the important road junction of Volodymyr-Volynsky. Soviet fortifications had been nearly completed on the division’s left and right flanks, but in front of the “Houch und Deutschmeister” the frontier was nearly empty of enemy troops. The division’s lead elements surged over the River Bug along the border virtually unopposed until they met resistance several kilometers to the east.
Maj. Gen. F.F. Alyabyshev’s 87th Rifle Division had been camped well away from the border, with security of the actual frontier left to a screen of NKVD border troops. Most of the 44th Infantry Division crossed the River Bug without opposition, and met the 283rd Rifle Regiment some distance beyond the river. The Soviets put up tough resistance but the German infantry levered them out of the town of Ivaniv to begin their assault on Ukraine. The German division, made up of units of the former Austrian Federal Army, had only horsed cavalry in its reconnaissance battalion rather than the mixture of cavalry, cyclists and armored cars found in other German divisions.
We lead off with a cavalry action, as the mounted recon battalion of the Hoch und Deutschmeister clashes with a small Soviet infantry screen on the morning of the German invasion. Both sides pour in reinforcements, with the Germans trying to use their better tactical flexibility, artillery and numbers to shove the Soviets off the map. Despite the strategic surprise of the overall situation, the Red Army is ready for a fight.
Across the Bug
22 June 1941
The town of Ustyluh stood near the Soviet bank of the river Bug, where a bridge crossed the river and carried an important highway over the Bug and on to Kiev. Though forbidden to deploy its troops on the border to avoid an international incident, the 87th Rifle Division had moved several battalions up to Ustyluh under the guise of performing construction work on new bunkers and improved positions. When German artillery began falling around them, they dropped their shovels and picked up their rifles.
The 87th Rifle Division had quietly moved several battalions of the 16th and 96th Rifle Regiments close to the frontier, and the 212th Howitzer Regiment had already been deployed there by the General Staff’s orders. The artillery and infantry put up fierce resistance, assisted by a battalion of the 41st Tank Division’s 82nd Tank Regiment. But superior German command and control won the day, and the Soviets were pushed backwards. Assured of reinforcements, Alyabyshev made plans to not only hold his positions but counter-attack as soon as possible.
A lot of forces maneuver in a fairly small area, with the Germans making an opposed river crossing to start the action. Once they have a bridgehead, panzer forces roll across and begin their advance to the east. But Soviet tanks are on their way to reinforce the defenders and it turns into a tank battle on the banks of the Bug.
Into the Trap
23 June 1941
With no directions coming from South-West Front, F.F. Alyabyshev of 87th Rifle Division followed his pre-war instructions and ordered his troops to attack the fascist invaders on the morning following the treacherous Axis attack on the Soviet Union. All three rifle regiments would drive on the border town of Ustyluh, and 41st Tank Division agreed to provide a regiment of armor this time instead of the lone battalion that had fought alongside the riflemen on the previous day.
The KV-2 tanks did not arrive on the battlefield, but the sheer bravery of the tankers in their aging T-26 light tanks almost made up for their absence. Despite horrific losses the Soviets forced their way into Ustyluh, but could not quite eject the Germans from the remainder of the town. Within hours, the Germans responded with their own counter-counter-attack.
We return to the same battlefield, with the Soviets laying on a massive infantry attack backed by large numbers of tanks, all in an effort to push the Germans back across the Bug. The Germans have plenty of artillery and anti-tank guns; their lightweight 37mm will do nothing to harm the huge KV-2’s should they appear but are perfectly adequate against the masses of T-26 light tanks.
23 June 1941
Maj. Gen. F.F. Alyabyshev’s counter-attack did not take the Germans by surprise, though its intensity and relative success did exceed their expectations. It also played directly into their hands, setting up the Soviets for the sort of crushing counter-strike that pre-war planning had hoped to achieve. The deeper the Soviets plunged their troops into the German lines, the harder it would be for them to extract them once the blow fell. It fell a scant two hours after the Soviet attack ran out of steam.
The attack did not surprise the 87th Rifle Division any more than they had surprised the Germans, but now it was their turn to be shocked by their enemy’s determination. Unable to match German tactical maneuverability and firepower, the Soviets defenders were overwhelmed. The panzers broke through the division’s center while the infantry crushed its flanks, and by nightfall Alyabyshev had ordered a general retreat despite the lack of direction from above. By this point his division had ceased to exist in any meaningful fashion, and the general was killed in action two days later as he tried to extract the unit’s survivors from German encirclement.
We’re back on the banks of the Bug for a third time, as the Germans make an attack of their own with plenty of panzers. Soviet tank support has dwindled thanks to heavy losses in the earlier fighting, so the edge in armor goes to the Germans here though all the Red Army has to do is hang on in order to win the scenario.
23 June 1941
Soviet forces in Ukraine had been arrayed – contrary to the will of the Military District’s commander, Mikhail Kirponos – in a “checkerboard” fashion, with every other division stationed well behind the frontier. When word arrived of the German attack the 135th Rifle Division rushed forward in a vain attempt to close the yawning gap between the 87th and 124th Rifle Divisions, the two other divisions of XXVII Rifle Corps. Maj. Gen. F.N. Smekhotvorov urged his formation forward through the night to succor its comrades. When scouts reported Germans in Lokachi, well to the east of where they had expected them, Smekhotvorov ordered an immediate attack.
The oncoming Soviet 396th Rifle Regiment delivered a sharp night assault on Lokachi, inflicting serious losses on the German recon unit holding the town and sending them reeling backwards. Many Red Army units reacted poorly to their first taste of combat, due to shock, lack of experienced officers, interference from political advisors, an abundance of scantily-trained new recruits or still more reasons. The 396th Rifle Regiment showed none of these flaws in its baptism of combat; its kommisars prepared the men for battle, the officers drafted their plan, and the troops executed it well. There would be few such successful operations in the days and months to come.
An infantry fight in the darkness, with a well-organized, well-led Soviet force seeking to eject a reinforced German recon unit. No artillery on either side and two veteran units clash on equal terms.
The Road to Lutsk
24 June 1941
Caught by surprise, the Red Army’s Southwest Front had suffered terrible defeats in the war’s first two days, but a number of relatively undamaged formations had finally brought themselves into position to make a defensive stand and counter-attack. Maj. Gen. F.N. Smekhotvorov placed his 135th Rifle Division across the highway leading to the city of Lutsk on the river Styr with powerful support behind him and armored formations ready to strike.
The German attack made good progress against the 135th Rifle Division’s forward positions, but the Soviets did not allow a breakthrough nor did they panic, falling back under the cover of the 1st Anti-Tank Artillery Brigade’s positions. The anti-tank gunners fought their guns heroically, mounting what the Germans would later in the war term a “PAKfront.” By the Soviet count the Germans lost 70 armored vehicles before breaking off the assault, while four complete anti-tank batteries were annihilated in close-quarters fighting. Had 19th Tank Division arrived on the battlefield the Soviets might have inflicted even more damage, but the tankers would have to wait.
The panzers come in two waves, only to crash against a stoutly-manned PAKfront well-able to shred their machines. And if the Soviets are lucky, tanks of their own will join the fray just in the nick of time. The Germans pour lots of armor into the fight, but the Soviet lines are well-manned with good-morale troops backed by plentiful artillery. This is not your grandfather’s Barbarossa.
The Road to Lokachi
24 June 1941
Having stopped the German drive up the road to Lokachi, the Soviet 135th Rifle Division went over to the attack as had been planned before the Germans struck first. The 19th Tank Division – reduced to a battle group by tank breakdowns and German air strikes – had finally arrived to join in the effort. Red Army doctrine called for immediate counter-attacks against the invader, and despite a near-total breakdown of communications, shortages of equipment and personnel and a much faster operational pace than anticipated, the divisions of Fifth Army intended to carry out their duty.
The Soviet attack initially had a great deal of success, pushing back the Germans from almost all of their gains made during the morning. But Maj. Gen. F.N. Smekhotvorov’s 135th Rifle Division had already been outflanked when it took up its initial positions, and now the Germans crashed into the oncoming Soviets from the flank while sending additional troops to blunt their advance. The two Soviet divisions suffered devastating losses, made worse by the Red Army’s practice of sending senior armored officers directly into action aboard tanks – two of the 19th Tank Division’s regimental commanders were killed and the third taken prisoner.
The Soviets are on the attack over the same ground as the previous scenario, with a strong force of tanks and infantry. But the Germans have tanks of their own, reinforcements on the way and the chance of bringing in a flanking force to ruin the Red Army’s day. It all makes for a very fluid mobile battle.
Bridge over the River Styr
25 June 1941
With its forward formations destroyed or dispersed, the Soviet Fifth Army struggled to assemble a defensive front along the River Styr. The battered 1st Anti-Tank Artillery Brigade would hold around the town of Rozhysche, its formidable guns providing a rallying point to gather various shattered units. The brigade’s versatile 76.2mm field guns had already given good service, but pulling them back in the face of a mobile enemy proved a very difficult task.
Apocalyptic scenes of confusion met the Soviet attempt to cross the narrow railroad bridge, which had no solid surface other than the railroad ties. Men jumped into the Styr, with most drowning, leaving behind cannon and vehicles on the bridge. The command staff of 1st Anti-Tank Artillery Brigade reacted by sending a pair of KV-2 tanks across the bridge to flatten all of the detritus under their 52-ton bulk. The expedient worked, but the units trying to cross suffered heavy losses from panic and the fire of the attacking Germans.
We wrap up the first chapter with an unusual scenario, a Soviet attempt to defend an ever-shrinking bridgehead and escape across to the other side. The Germans have tanks, numbers and artillery, but even when depleted 1st Anti-Tank Brigade can throw an awful lot of heavy metal into the air.
And that’s Chapter One. Next time, we’ll look at Chapter Two.
You can order Fire in the Steppe right here.
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.