Kursk: Burning Tigers
Scenario Preview, Part Three
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
It’s Mike Perryman’s scenario design for history’s greatest tank battle that makes Panzer Grenadier: Kursk, Burning Tigers such a fine game. Here’s the third installment of our scenario preview.
Drive on Ponyri I: Grand Ambitions
5 July 1943
The 292nd Infantry Division planned to quickly secure Aleksandrovka on the first day of Operation Citadel, then wheel to the left and take Ponyri in conjunction with the 86th Infantry Division. Such success by the foot soldiers would set the stage for the exploiting panzers to shine as they had in Operation Barbarossa. But this was no longer 1941.
In their quest for Ponyri the grenadiers received support from a detachment of Elefants. These monsters boasted 200mm of front armor and mounted a KwK 43 88mm gun comparable to those on a modern battlefield. Several shortcomings offset these advantages: no cupola for the commander and no secondary armament for self-defense. To compound such matters their slow speed made it difficult for them to escape enemy tank killing squads.
German officers quickly learned that fighting here would be different than before. Soviet soldiers, trained rigorously by Kommissars and technicians to deal with enemy armor, could contain German attacks. They allowed the Elefants to roll over their foxholes, then emerged to wreak havoc on the supporting infantry. Time and again they forced the Elefants to turn back and fight over ground their commanders considered already won. Even worse, once the Elefants became separated from their supporting infantry they became easy prey for tank killer squads who favored firing flamethrowers into the air intake vents. Despite these setbacks Aleksandrovka fell under the German boot.
The Germans are on the attack against a well-fortified Soviet position held by a middle-of-the-road rifle division supplied with abundant heavy weapons. But the Germans have the Elefant tank destroyer, and their cute little Goliath exploding toy tanks, something you’d expect a costumed super-villain called “The Toymaker” to deploy. The Elefants aren’t really all that useful here: the Soviets have no armor so it’s going to be up to the German infantry to dig the RKKA out of their entrenchments.
Drive on Ponyri II: The Beat Goes on
5 July 1943
Part of the 292nd Infantry Division split off to drive the enemy from Aleksandrovka, while the majority wheeled to the left to support the drive on Ponyri. Though already battered, the Soviet 15th Rifle Division stepped up onto the ridges west of Ponyri. The division’s recon units had brought in a German prisoner the night before with detailed knowledge of the coming attack. The division’s officers confidently offered battle to the Hitlerite invaders.
Unlike many previous battles, the Russian infantry refused to panic in the face of German armor, allowing the officers to organize a solid defense on the ridgeline. As the few reinforcements arrived they quickly incorporated themselves into the defenses. When night fell the Germans remained on the ridges and seriously behind schedule.
This is a much bigger scenario than the last, but follows a similar outline: a German infantry assault, this time backed by a pretty strong armored contingent, against a well-fortified Soviet line with copious heavy weapons at hand. This time the fortifications are even thicker and protected by a huge number of minefields, so the German is going to have to keep moving and make good use of his assault guns in combined-arms assaults.
Drive on Ponyri III: If at First . . .
5 July 1943
On the opening day of Operation Citadel, XLI Panzer Corps was expected to secure the heavily defended village of Ponyri. To accomplishing this without employing their carefully rebuilt panzer formations, corps headquarters built a powerful battle group around the 86th Infantry Division. They attached the 45 Brummbars of the 216th Heavy Panzer Detachment in addition to the majority of the 90 Elefants of the 653rd and 654th Antitank Detachments. Finally, they added a panzer grenadier regiment from 18th Panzer Division to insure success.
After four failed attacks the Germans regrouped and tried again. This time they forced the defenders back and their prospects of spending the night in Ponyri looked good. Then the appearance of enemy armor greatly hampered their efforts, which then stalled completely when a Soviet antitank brigade showed up. Nevertheless, at the end of the day confidence still ran high in the German camp.
Resistible force meets immovable object. The German assault group is huge, with lots of Elefant tank destroyers, Brummbar heavy assault guns and just plain assault guns to back them up. But the defending force is even huger, with all the entrenchments, minefields and heavy anti-tank guns they could want plus some armor support of their own. This could be a long day for the Herrenvolk.
Drive on Ponyri IV: Standing Their Ground
6 July 1943
As the sun rose the Germans around Ponyri still faced a determined enemy who had thwarted their ambitions on the previous day. While headquarters paid close heed to the timeline, they knew the Wehrmacht operated at the end of a long supply line making losses hard to replace. Therefore, maneuver would be employed as well as frontal assault to prevent unnecessary casualties. The attack on Ponyri began using the men already in position around the village, while strong elements of the 86th Infantry Division circled to the left attempting to cut off the village from the south.
The plan looked good on paper and probably had a fair chance of success. However, the Soviets stood their ground stubbornly, exacting as well as paying a horrible price from the Germans for the three miles of ground surrendered. The Elefants again proved hard to stop, but the foot soldiers’ sacrifices carried the day.
This is an unusual scenario, with the German player selecting a flanking attack force that may or may not arrive on the battlefield (it probably will, but it’s mathematically possible for it to never arrive). It’s a mechanic very similar to that of a Napoleonic game the local wargame group used to play a lot, but as far as I can recall the first time something like this has been done in Panzer Grenadier’s 1,000-whatever scenarios. That Perryman, he knows scenario design.
Drive on Ponyri V: 18th Panzer Joins the Fray
6 July 1943
On the operation’s first day the 18th Panzer Division detached one of its regiment to support the 86th Infantry Division. For the second day’s attack, the whole division rolled forward in an effort to reach Ponyri. Whether they possessed enough firepower to do so remained open to question as the panzer regiment contained only 69 battle tanks with fewer than 30 of them being long-barreled PzIVs. Only two companies owned armored personnel carriers and the division command had doled them out to two different battalions, failing to concentrate their force.
The 307th Rifle Division doggedly held their position in the second defensive belt, preventing the Germans from enveloping Ponyri from the south and west. The Soviets checked the drive to the east as well, leaving as the only way to the plains beyond the one through the village itself. It remained to be seen whether the Germans retained sufficient strength to push through.
Tank battle! Actually it’s an infantry fight with tanks involved on both sides, so they’ll likely get mixed up with the foot soldiers instead of just blazing away at each other. Soviet defenses are robust, but this time the Germans bring lots of tanks despite all the poor-mouthing in the intro.
Drive on Ponyri VI: 1st of May State Farm
7 July 1943
Yesterday the 292nd Infantry Division failed to push on through Ponyri to achieve the desperately needed operational maneuver room for the follow-on panzers. So, today orders sent them back again to clear the stubborn defenders from the village. They also received the secondary task of securing a small hamlet called the 1st of May State Farm located just east of Ponyri.
Slowly the Germans pried the Russians from their sanctuary and the claimed their consolation prize. Unable to stop to enjoy their triumph the victors pushed on, becoming embroiled in the deadly fighting for the rubble of Ponyri.
This is just a little scenario, one board and a handful of units on each side, and I had I been alert I should have moved this to serve as Scenario One (always make an intro scenario the first one, since it’s the scenario that will get played the most by far). Simple victory conditions, few special rules. I like this little one.
Drive on Ponyri VII: At Long Last?
7 July 1943
With fighting inside Ponyri at a fevered pitch, the German escalated their efforts to envelop the village. While the 86th Infantry Division fought to open the way east of Ponyri the 9th Panzer Division sought to drive some Guardsmen out of the woods to the west. The Guards had occupied the position on the previous day and immediately began exploiting the defensive advantages of the terrain.
When the Germans’ unrelenting pressure finally began inching the Guardsman back the harried Soviets began to waver. A breakout seemed imminent. Seeing a disaster in the making the officers and Kommissars jumped into the heart of the action. They quickly focused the troops on disabling the panzers in front of them and suppressing their supporting infantry. As fighting quieted down for the night the only change in the situation around Ponyri was the number of dead and dying.
It only gets tougher for the Germans: they have a very good panzer division in play with strong, modern armor. But the Soviet defenders are mostly Guards with morale equal to that of the Germans, strong tank support (though not as strong as that of the Hitlerite invaders) and well-entrenched positions (though not quite as formidable as in previous scenarios). There are a lot of forces in play in a small playing area – this is going to be a very hot fight.
Drive of Ponyri VIII: The Fight Continues
8 July 1943
For three straight days the German efforts to clear Ponyri fell short. With the offensive disastrously behind schedule, both Corps and Army headquarters demanded that the village fall today. As the town was already packed with troops, the corps staff directed the 18th Panzer Division to push the Soviets west of Ponyri off the facing ridges to gain some freedom of maneuver. They suspected that a turned flank would lever the enemy out of Ponyri and free the panzers to exploit.
The panzers pushed relentlessly forward against the fresh and stubborn Guards who had replaced the 307th Rifle Division the day before. The Germans drove them back a mile and pulled even with Ponyri but could do no more. They paid a high price in men and materiel yet the chance of future success appeared dim.
This is a big scenario, with a mighty force of German tanks and infantry crashing into defending Soviet Guards backed by a handful of tanks and a plethora of anti-tank guns. This is what wargames are all about.
Drive on Ponyri IX: Unawares
8 July 1943
Before the long-anticipated Operation Citadel began, Stavka decided to aggressively pursue any opportunity that presented itself to counterattack the Germans. Nowhere did the troops exemplify this more than at Ponyri when at dawn the embattled 307th Rifle Division took the fight to its tormentors. Meanwhile, 3rd Tank Corps attacked to reclaim the 1st of May State Farm with the secondary goal of killing as many of the hated Hitlerites as possible.
The audacity of the Russians caught the Germans completely unawares, and soon the smoking remains of the 1st of May State Farm lay firmly in Soviet hands. This tactical setback held no great operational significance, but it thoroughly shook General Model. He promptly reorganized his shock troops and argued with headquarters well into the night in an effort to get Operation Citadel called off.
This time the Red Army is on the attack, with a strong tank-infantry force crashing into an equally strong German tank-infantry force. There are a lot of units rampaging about on a fairly small playing surface, a sure recipe for mayhem.
Drive on Ponyri X: Hill 253.3
9 July 1943
General Model had not believed in Operation Citadel from the start, and now actively worked to stop the hemorrhage of irreplaceable loses that he believed all further offensive operations would incur. He felt that forces should be husbanded to stem the probable Soviet counter offensive. Unfortunately for Model, OKW still considered victory on the southern front a distinct possibility and ordered active offensive operations continued on both fronts. Regrouping his forces took the better part of the morning, so operations did not commence until almost midday.
The grenadiers showed great tactical skill in securing Hill 253.3 but meant little in the overall picture. Only controlling Ponyri and the ridges to the west could bring the Germans real progress, and the chance to pull that off had passed. General Model showed foresight regarding the useless expenditure of his men and machines on this day, and he would soon wish even more that the brass had listened to him when the Soviet counter-offensive kicked off.
The Germans are back on the attack, forcing their way southward on a narrow front. The forces on both sides are not as potent as in the previous few scenarios, but they’re still awfully strong. The German general was right; it’s going to be very tough for the Germans to meet all their victory conditions.
Forgotten Success I: Forward at Last
4 July 1943
The German Army High Command originally conceived Operation Citadel as a spring offensive. Hitler and his military advisors then displayed the periodic indecision that characterized the Nazis state, and as June passed the gathered troops sat idle waiting for a new unit or technology. They finally announced the new start date as July 5, but nobody believed it. The order came as almost a shock when the Fusilier Regiment received orders to secure Gertsovka to provide a place for the shock troops to assemble unobserved later that night.
Things did not start well for the Fusilier Regiment as both the commander (Col Kassnitz) and his replacement fell severely wounded in the fighting. Securing Gertsovka cost the 15th Company almost 33% casualties. Nevertheless, capturing the jump-off point did allow the shock troops and their supporting armor to move into their assembly areas unmolested until early morning when a heavy thunderstorm followed by a Soviet artillery bombardment wreaked havoc on them.
A little change of pace, with a one-board scenario featuring only a few units on each side. The Soviet defense is pretty tough, and the German bar for victory is set pretty high, so this one’s going to get pretty intense. The Germans can afford to take any number of losses if they take their objectives (and don’t ask the troops’ opinion).
And that’s it for the third installment!
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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.