Fire in the Steppe:
The Battle, Part Five
I’ve always liked telling stories. I’ve designed a whole lot of board games, but took vastly more enjoyment my work on role-playing games: you get a build a world, or describe an aspect of the real world, and then tell a story set in it. That’s enormously fun, from a creative point of view.
Panzer Grenadier: Fire in the Steppe melds those two worlds together. It is, at first glance, a pretty traditional hex-and-counter wargame (it has hexes, and it has counters, and they do all the usual things that hexes and counters do). It’s the scenarios that make it different, unfolding the story of the Brody-Dubno tank battles – and through them, you can play the story.
Let’s take a look at Chapter Four’s scenarios.
The furious battles on the 28th left the mechanized corps in perilous shape, though they had inflicted serious losses on their opponents as well. Eighth Mechanized Corps now switched from punishing the Germans to freeing its trapped 34thTank Division and associated units.
Soviet pre-war doctrine placed even division commanders in the front lines, riding tanks into battle where they could at best control that part of the battlefield within their line of sight. That had so far produced an enormous casualty rate among senior commanders, and led to poorly-coordinated frontal attacks. Even so, the Soviet tankers had delayed the German advance and inflicted considerable losses on the invaders.
The Red Army’s pre-war parade-ground palace guard, best known for operating the huge T35 land battleships, 34th Tank Division’s tankers had proven themselves warriors as well. The division’s remnants fought on attached to the corps’ other two divisions, and it would not be re-constituted following the battle.
28 June 1941
Trying to re-open communications with the trapped 34th Tank Division, Col. A.V. Gerasimov’s 7th Mechanized Division launched a night attack – an operation beyond the capability of most Red Army formations in June 1941, but one he hoped his veteran leadership cadre could carry out effectively. So far the Germans had proven stalwart when pressed onto the defensive, but their low opinion of their Soviet foes might give Gerasimov a chance to seize the element of surprise. With 7th Mechanized Division suffering severe supply shortages of its own, just what benefits a breakthrough would bring to 34th Tank Division were questionable but at least an escape route could be opened.
Gerasimov’s attack fizzled after only a few hours, making little headway in the darkness. His corps commander, D.I. Ryabyshev, joined him at the division command post along with Maj. Gen. T.A. Mishanin of 12th Tank Division, who had suffered a concussion and could give little input to the generals’ meeting. Ryabyshev and Gerasimov agreed on a plan to abandon the advance and break out to the south-east, with Mishanin’s apparent concurrence.
It’s a fairly small night action, where the enormous range of those 88mm guns akes less of a difference (though they can still crush a BT-7 like an egg). “Small” is relative; this would be a mid-sized to large battle in our Korean War Panzer Grenadier games.
29 June 1941
Hans-Valentin Hube had inserted his 16th Panzer Division into the gap between the divisions of the Soviet VIII Mechanized Corps, and attempted to split the enemy forces still wider apart. While his infantry elements faced the Soviet 7th Mechanized and 12th Tank Divisions attempting to link up with their corps’ forward division, Hube sent Col. Rudolf Sieckenius with most of the division’s tanks to crush the isolated 34th Tank Division and its attached units. But despite days of heavy losses and a shortage of food, fuel and ammunition, corps commissar Nikolai Popel’s battle group was not ready to be crushed.
Sieckenius’ battle group had success, pushing the Soviet back despite fierce resistance. The Germans reported meeting KV-2 tanks, which seems unlikely – the KV-2 in 1941 filling the role in the imagination of the German troops that the Royal Tiger did in that of American soldiers in 1944 – and suffering heavy losses from them. Whatever the actual makeup of the defending force, they did manage to hold a cohesive front despite giving ground and re-organize themselves to deliver a nighttime counter-attack.
Tank battle! The Germans are on the attack, with plenty of tanks; the Soviets can oppose them with plenty of their own, but over the preceding days they’ve lost most of their T-34’s, KV’s and T35 land battleships. But there are still a few T-35’s in play, and that makes this scenario a must-play.
For the Night is Dark
29 June 1941
Soviet doctrine called for a prompt counter-attack against enemy penetrations, and by the book the advance by Rudolf Sieckenius’ battle group merited such treatment. But in June 1941 the book had perished under the reality of the rapid German advance and Soviet difficulties in leadership, organization and supply. But on occasion, the Red Army could still fight the way it had trained, or at least hoped to train.
The fury of the Soviet attack – including 34th Tank Division’s surviving T35 “land battleships” – shocked the Germans. “The Russians fought very hard,” 16th Panzer Division reported, “and on several occasions they jumped onto the combat vehicles themselves, firing at the crews.” Panic broke out and Sieckenius’ battle group fled. “It seemed nobody was listening to orders and random firing broke out around us,” a division veteran wrote later. “The charge of tanks and infantry could only be stopped for a short time.”
A massive nighttime tank battle, with T35 land battleships crushing fleeing Nazis under their treads. It doesn’t get any better than this.
29 June 1941
Despite their isolated position, 34th Tank Division and the attached forces from other VIII Mechanized Corps formations continued their attempts to capture Dubno. Having failed in their attack from the west, the Soviets re-formed during the night and tried to out-flank the Germans from the south on the following morning.
“The Russians began a new attack using tanks and infantry,” the 111th Infantry Division reported, “including 15cm assault tanks.” It’s not clear that the 34th Tank Division had any KV-2 tanks, but Soviet records aren’t always clear when differentiating the two models of KV. Even if present, the big tanks with their big guns couldn’t make up for the lack of real artillery. “The attack petered out,” the division combat journal recorded, “due to a lack of artillery and combined-arms infantry.”
The Soviets strike at dawn, with KV heavy tanks but no land battleships. Like the conclusion says, the Soviets don’t really have enough infantry, but neither do the Germans have enough anti-tank guns.
30 June 1941
German units pressed the 34th Tank Division into an ever-more-compact pocket while their artillery hammered the trapped Soviets. Corps commissar Nikolai Popel had already decided on the previous day that his battle group had to break out. Heartened by the success of the nighttime counter-attack against the 16th Panzer Division, Popel decided to repeat the attempt in the same sector, but this time with the entire division’s remaining strength.
Despite their experience of the previous night, the Germans once again were taken by surprise. Thirty-Fourth Tank Division lost over half of its remaining tanks and soft vehicles (all artillery had already been lost in combat or deliberately destroyed when ammunition ran out), but it successfully punctured the German perimeter and escaped total destruction. The division’s offensive had failed, but at least four German mobile divisions had been held up for days at a time when nothing seemed to stop or even slow their inexorable advance.
The land battleships – and plenty of their friends – are back in action in a large-scale nighttime tank battle. The Soviets are out to break on through to the other side, which is going to mean close-quarters tank fighting.
29 June 1941
Following the unsuccessful attempt by 7th Mechanized Division to break through to 34th Tank Division’s positions, conditions for VIII Mechanized Corps became ever-more dire during the course of 29 June. German artillery pounded the entire zone, with no “rear area” for the wounded, while air attacks added to the Red Army’s misery. As Ryabishev and his division commanders had agreed, when darkness fell the troops moved out.
The Soviets had already taken heavy casualties before the breakout attempt, and suffered many more losses including the division commander, T.A. Mishanin, who died when his tank was hit and set afire. The remnants of 7th Mechanized and 12th Tank divisions pulled back behind 141st Rifle Division. In early September 12th Tank Division became 33rd Tank Brigade while 7th Mechanized Division was re-organized as 7th Rifle Division.
It’s another night attack, this time with a Soviet tank division trying to break through a German infantry division and its puny little 37mm anti-tank guns. The 12th Tank Division doesn’t have a whole lot of tanks left, but that’s little comfort for the landsers since they’re all concentrated on a very narrow front: 24 platoons’ worth.
1 July 1941
The nighttime escape of 34th Tank Division did not bring all of the formation’s troops to safety. On the morning after fighting their way through 16th Panzer Division, division commander Col. I.V. Vasilyev found unexpected resistance and decided to change the direction of his group’s attack, unfortunately shifting toward a more stoutly-held sector. The colonel ordered an immediate attack on the village of Bolshaya Milcha, and his tired troops sprang into action yet again.
The Soviets attempted to overrun German artillery positions to help ease their escape, and had some success until the gunners knocked out the last of their heavy KV tanks. Vasilyev and his commissar went missing and were never found, presumably having been killed in the attack. Those tankers who could not force their way past the Germans set their vehicles afire and made their way to safety on foot
The Children of Vienna are back in action, facing a desperate Soviet tank attack spearheaded by monstrous KV heavy tanks. To combat them, the Austrians have rolled their 105mm howitzers into the front lines to serve as anti-tank guns.
And that’s the fourth chapter of Fire in the Steppe.
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.