Fire in the Steppe:
The Battle, Part Six
“I don’t care about revisionist history!”
A self-proclaimed leading wargame designer wrote that in an online discussion some years back, when I offered suggestions on recent scholarship regarding the 1914 Battle of Tannenberg. I stopped offering anyone suggestions after that. The hard truth is, depth of research and analysis isn’t going to sell you many more games but it is going to cost you enormously more time and effort (and therefore money).
And so we have Panzer Grenadier: Fire in the Steppe, which draws heavily on the work of those despised revisionists to present a close look at the tank battle of Brody-Dubno. I probably should have tossed off a dozen “typical actions on the Eastern Front” instead and been done with the game a year earlier but, well, I didn’t.
Here’s a look at the first half of the last chapter of Fire in the Steppe (it’s a really long chapter):
Sixth Army’s Front
To the south-east of the Brody-Dubno battlefield, the Soviet Sixth Army also faced the German Seventeenth Army. Sixth Rifle Corps had three rifle divisions, arrayed in the checkerboard pattern inflicted on Fifth Army: 97th and 41st Rifle Divisions stood near the frontier, with 159th Rifle Division between them but deployed well back of the front line, inviting the Germans to split the front and envelop the two front-line divisions.
To the left of Sixth Army, Twenty-Sixth Army held its front with VIII Rifle Corps on the right and XIII Rifle Corps on the left, each with three rifle divisions in a similar checkerboard deployment. The old Austro-Hungarian fortress-city of Przemyśl marked the boundary between the two Soviet army sectors; the German-Soviet demarcation line ran through the center of the city and the remaining fortifications played no role in Soviet defensive plans.
Opposing Sixth Army, the German Seventeenth Army held responsibility for assisting the advance of First Panzer Group on its left while maintaining the front southward to the Hungarian border. The weight of its effort here would be made by 4th Infantry Corps, 49th Mountain Corps (which only had one mountain division) and 52nd Infantry Corps, which consisted of three light infantry divisions.
This final chapter of Fire in the Steppe covers the advance of 17th Army against Sixth Army, and also the defense of Sixth Army against First Panzer Group once the mechanized corps’ fighting power had been spent.
24 June 1941
Soviet doctrine held that in case of German attack the mechanized corps should be held in reserve and then committed in their entirety to counter-attack any enemy breakthroughs or to spearhead a counter-offensive into enemy territory. For the most part South-West Front obeyed that directive, resulting in long marches that littered the roadside with broken-down tanks. But in the Sixth Army sector, Chief of Staff Georgi Zhukov from Moscow over-ruled the front command and directed the use of the most powerful such corps in piecemeal deployments to plug the holes rapidly developing in the Soviet lines.
The Soviet tankers caught the German infantry still in march columns, and mowed them down where they stood. “The town burned,” the 81st Mechanized Division’s combat journal recorded. “The streets were strewn with fascist corpses.” Despite those brave words, the light tanks – with little infantry support and no artillery - could not by themselves dislodge the Germans from the village of Nemirov.
Two days into Operation Barbarossa, and already it’s the Red Army catching its enemies by surprise and stomping all over them. It’s a good thing.
24 June 1941
Sixth Army had directed 8th Tank Division to attack the Germans at Nemirov, but did nothing to coordinate that effort with that of 81st Mechanized Division. The division’s 15th Tank Regiment dutifully set out to smite the Hitlerite invaders, but neither the army nor division staff attached any infantry or artillery to the attempt. Even so, the Soviets would strike with powerful tanks the Germans had never seen before.
Not only had the Soviets not coordinated the attacks from the two divisions, the delay between their assaults allowed the Germans to replace the regiment shattered by the morning attack with a fresh formation. These troops held their ground despite repeated attacks by the Soviet medium and heavy tanks, exacting large-scale losses (at least nineteen T-34 tanks were lost) and holding on to the village.
Same battlefield, different outcome. In Panzer Grenadier, as in the actual war, you really need infantry to support your tanks or very bad things are going to happen.
25 June 1941
While the panzers received all of the headlines, infantry undertook the bulk of the fighting done by the German Army (and the Red Army as well). On the southern “shoulder” of the German penetration the German 17th Army advanced with a collection of infantry, light infantry and mountain divisions and eventually a Slovak brigade. The infantry advance was less dramatic than that of the armored divisions, but equally inexorable.
The German infantry rolled over the Soviet positions, and repelled the counter-attack of 81st Mechanized Division as well. Air attacks devastated the Soviet road columns, and both divisions crumbled under the German advance. The 323rd Rifle Regiment reported losses of 80 percent, with all of its senior officers missing in action.
As in the 1940 campaign, it’s the panzers who get the headlines and the infantry who get the job done. This is an infantry fight at first, with a few Soviet tanks coming on later to try to blunt the German advance.
22 June 1941
Unlike the rifle divisions to their north-east, the 3rd Cavalry Division began the war on the border, expected to hold a sector between two fortified areas until a relieving rifle division reached the frontier on the third day of mobilization. That relief never came and when the Germans lunged across the border without warning, the Red horsemen found themselves in the midst of a battle they had never expected to fight.
Despite their recent arrival and lack of both numbers and support weapons, the horsemen held their lines against German attack. Their limited success did little for the overall situation: no rifle division had moved up to secure the cavalry division’s right flank and German units poured into the gap, turning the cavalry’s flank. Third Cavalry Division managed to retreat in good order, at least from this initial debacle.
This one’s pretty tough on the cavalry, but the Soviet player does have the option to dismount them which helps things somewhat. But once you’re off your horse, you can’t get back on it.
And that’s half of the fifth 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.