Fire in the Steppe:
The Battle, Part Seven
Part of that whole revisionist-history thing, as regards to the story of the Great Patriotic War, is a fresh look at the Great Purge undertaken in the years just before the war. The Red Army lost as many as 30,000 officers to firing squads, labor camps and simple forced retirement, leaving many units short of leadership.
Overshadowed by the judicial murder of generals like Mikhail Tukhachevsky is the fact that at least some of those purged, though not deserving to be killed, definitely did not need to continue in their posts, either. Along with those ejected from the Red Army for supposed treason, many more were cashiered for alcoholism or simple incompetence. The purges may have removed good officers from the ranks, but they also cleaned out a great deal of deadwood.
As shown in Panzer Grenadier: Fire in the Steppe, the Red Army could definitely still fight in June 1941. While many units suffered from a shortage of officers, other problems stand out as even more important: shortages of transport, communications gear and ammunition. All of those can be traced to a too-rapid expansion of the armored forces. These hampered the Red Army’s ability to fight, but it still showed a great deal of will, something one would not expect in a force hollowed out by the loss of its leadership cadre.
Let’s wrap up our look at the scenarios of Fire in the Steppe, with the last half of the final chapter:
Completely Out of Action
24 June 1941
Sandwiched between two hard-charging divisions, the German 68th Infantry Division had trouble maintaining its own rate of advance despite the devastation wreaked on the opposing 97th Rifle Division by the German Air Force and the neighboring German 257th Infantry Division. Noting the weakness in the opposing enemy lineup – one of the Red Army’s few intelligence successes in the early days of the Great Patriotic War – the Soviet Sixth Army ordered IV Mechanized Corps to strike the lagging formation with all three of its own divisions.
Battered by multiple waves of Soviet attackers, 68th Infantry Division’s advance stalled and soon the formation began to retreat. Army Group South reported that the division had been put “completely out of action” and on the 25th ordered it removed from the front and replaced by 4th Mountain Division, a unit from the army group’s reserves. The switch had been made by the morning of the 26th and the Germans resumed their slow advance in this sector.
This time it’s a high-morale Soviet tank division stomping all over a weak-morale German infantry unit. The Soviets are short of infantry, which will leave some of their armor vulnerable to infantry assault, but the Germans aren’t exactly eager to close with them.
25 June 1941
Given operational control of IV Mechanized Corps, the Soviet Sixth Army staff directed two of its three divisions to conduct local counter-attacks against advancing German infantry divisions. The powerful 8th Tank Division received no such instructions. Rather than leave this formation idle to be shot to pieces by German aircraft, corps commander A.A. Vlasov decided that the orders must have gone astray and on his own initiative – a dangerous commodity in the Soviet system – he issued the division his own orders to attack the nearest German spearhead.
“The enemy infantry sat on the combat vehicles that had gone on the attack,” the 97th Light Infantry Division’s history reads. “Sowing chaos and destruction, they destroyed everything in their path.” The counter-attack indeed halted the German advance, a rare thing in June 1941, but at the cost of serious losses to 8th Tank Division’s remaining armor strength. Vlasov would become more famous several years later, leading a small collaborationist army for the Nazis he had fought so well in 1941.
The Soviets have to do a lot to win this scenario, and they’ve got a lot with which to do it including a healthy portion of T-34 and KV-1 tanks. Against that, the Germans wield their 37mm anti-tank guns: three of them to stop 14 enemy tank platoons.
29 June 1941
After a week of heavy combat and incessant German air attacks, 8th Tank Division’s fighting power had been seriously eroded, with many tanks and almost all of its artillery lost. When the German Army Group South introduced the fresh 9th Panzer Division into the front lines, the battered 8th Tank Division showed it still had fighting power, engaging the Germans to help 10th Tank Division extract itself from potential encirclement.
Ninth Panzer Division, an Austrian unit originally created from the Federal Army’s Fast Division, recorded this as a successful action, noting they had “brushed aside” a Soviet attack including “super-heavy tanks.” Eighth Tank Division noted a victory as well, since they had successfully opened a path for 10th Tank Division to withdraw. Both sides had fulfilled their objectives.
We have another tank battle! Sixteen Soviet tank platoons, a dozen German ones. You’ll want to set this up on your parent’s shag carpet, ’cause 1970’s real wargaming is back.
1 July 1941
The Soviet Sixth Army, on the southern “shoulder” of the German penetration, had successfully fought off the German infantry divisions on its front, at least until Army Group South introduced XIV Motorized Corps on their front. This stout defense allowed the mechanized corps to make their counter-attacks at Brody and Dubno without the Germans caving in their left and rear flanks. After the armored attacks ended, Sixth Army fell back to a perimeter around Tarnopol, where the Germans resumed their attacks.
Maj. Gen. M.F. Maleev’s division had already taken heavy losses in the war’s first ten days, but made it to its designated positions in relatively good order. While the cavalrymen had fought well up to this point, they had no answer for the panzer spearheads. The panzers ruptured the inadequately-held front and pressed on toward Tarnopol.
Tanks against horses; it’s going to be tough for the Red cavalry with their battered morale and utter lack of artillery. On the bright side, the Germans have to accomplish a great deal to win the scenario.
Assault Gun Assault
1 July 1941
The German 17th Army had no panzer formations, but did have a number of attached battalions of assault guns – turretless tanks operated by the artillery branch. Army command concentrated two battalions with the 100th Light Infantry Division to create a striking force they hoped could force a breakthrough at the well-defended town of Mykolaiv.
The Soviets reported that 99th Rifle Division had been struck by a “panzer brigade,” and the effects of the assault seemed to bear that out. The light infantry organization – very similar to that of standard infantry except for devolved control at battalion level – worked well in this instance when combined with a generous allotment of assault guns. The advance by 52nd Corps (two light infantry divisions) matched that of 14th and 48th Motorized Corps further to the east.
This is one of my favorites in the set, as you get to play with every assault gun pieces in the box. The Soviet defense is pretty tough, with plenty of anti-tank guns and field guns deployed in a front-line role.
Counter Strike at Tarnopol
2 July 1941
Having sliced through the positions of 37th Rifle Corps, the German 16th Panzer Division rampaged into the rear area of Sixth Army, threatening the communications node of Tarnopol and putting the entire army’s retreat and supply routes in grave danger. Tenth Tank Division had been ordered into front reserves, but had not yet withdrawn from the zone of operations.
The Germans claimed to have fought off an uncoordinated Soviet attack with little problem, and then to have halted their advance of their own accord. Tenth Tank Division by this point had lost most of its combat capability – it had no artillery, and had lost almost all of its towed weapons. But it still had tanks, infantry and a will to fight, all of which it applied to at least temporarily halt the German advance. The division’s sacrifice would not be enough: other German units entered Tarnopol even as the Red tankers fought and died just to the west of town, and two days later the invaders began the systematic mass murder of Tarnopol’s Jews.
I’d meant for this to be the set’s concluding scenario, so that last line of the conclusion could make clear what the Germans fought for here and elsewhere.
Spirit of the Defensive
1 July 1941
Having evacuated his headquarters from the town of Tarnopol, South-West Front commander Mikhail Kirponos altered his forces’ objective from counter-attack to timely withdrawal. “In the new orders, we reluctantly admitted that the offensive capabilities of the Front are exhausted,” wrote I.K. Bagramyan, head of the front’s operations section and future Marshal of the Soviet Union. “The orders were, in fact, laced with the spirit of the defensive.”
Though the Soviets expected a German assault, it still shattered the front of 80th Rifle Division. The panzers poured through the gap, unhinging the neighboring 139th Rifle Division as well, while to the east the 16th Motorized Division also smashed its way through the Soviet lines. The Germans finally had a panzer breakthrough, and the Soviets suddenly had multiple divisions cut off behind the German front.
And we finish instead with a German tank assault on Soviet defenses more in keeping with popular conceptions of June 1941 on the Eastern Front. It would be a very long summer in Ukraine.
And that’s the story of Fire in the Steppe.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published an unknowable number of books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.
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