Elsenborn Scenario Preview, Part 2
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Panzer Grenadier scenario design is far more art than science. Wargamers are a deterministic bunch, by an overwhelming margin, and often want to know the metrics used to decide various aspects of a scenario.
The first task is usually to determine the forces involved and the ground over which they fought. I have a nice set of laminated map cards, about 4 x 6 inches, which I lay out on a table and switch around until they approximate the battlefield or sometimes, the participants' view of the battlefield. This process works differently for a boxed game like Elsenborn Ridge than a book supplement like First Axis. While there are many more boards available for a supplement, they were almost always produced well before I even thought of writing extra scenarios that used them. Boxed games have far fewer from which to choose, but they were drawn specifically to support the scenarios within the game; for example, with Elsenborn Ridge I drew the sketch maps specifically to support scenarios at the Twin Villages, the Crossroads and Parker's Crossroads with modifications for other locations. White Eagles is the exception among the book supplements, as several of the Road to Berlin maps were drawn with a future Poland 1939 book in mind.
The forces usually correspond pretty closely to the actual participants, with some variation built in if one side or the other was unsure what they faced. Panzer Grenadier scenarios are meant to represent actual actions, not puzzles with a military veneer, so that can mean units are present just because they were for example, anti-tank guns when the enemy has no tanks. Outside of the hypothetical supplements like Secret Weapons, we don't publish scenarios "representative of actions on the Eastern Front" in place of actual battles. That said, combat is stressful and "what really happened" is often subject to interpretation. Plus, people lie.
But once the orders of battle are determined, each force gets a subjective rating as to its quality. This shows up most obviously in its morale. Good units get a morale of 8, average ones 7. Very bad ones get 6 (assorted SS trash) and a handful are rated at 9 (Finnish jδgers, Maoris, just a few others). There's also a second morale rating for units at reduced strength, and this also reflects a unit's quality. Most drop by one level, poor ones drop by two, and a very few elite units stay the same.
"Officers" and "leaders" are not the same thing, as anyone who's done military service can attest. The number of leaders also reflects a unit's quality, with good units receiving many and poor units few. Less obvious is that the rank of leaders also plays a role: a very good unit that's fought and/or trained together for a long spell and has good cohesion has a broad range to allow for chain activations, while one that may have many fine qualities but is not quite the same well-oiled machine might have a pack of lieutenants and a colonel. Thus the sergeant pieces don't see much use only the best units have a true bell curve of leadership.
Finally, there are victory conditions, built around each side's objectives. In the best scenarios, these are not symmetric each side is doing different things and has a different view of "success." The player is forced to choose between meeting his own goals and stopping the other guy from meeting his, as one will not automatically take care of the other.
Here's a look at some more Elsenborn scenarios.
(Part 1 of this preview is here.)
An Operation Named Mist
16 December 1944
While part of the Volksgrenadier division struck down the Schwarzenbruch Trail toward the village of Krinkelt, another regiment attacked into the woods to the south in hopes of flanking the American defenders. The Germans had numbers on their side, but the Americans had not been surprised.
The initial German bombardment did little damage to American positions in this sector, and the advancing Volksgrenadiers walked into a torrent of rifle and machine-gun fire. A single barefoot BAR gunner killed over a dozen Germans. But German numbers told and the assault had begun to make headway by mid-morning, when the Americans threw in their last reserve, the regimental anti-tank minelaying platoon. Lt. Harry Parker led his men in a wild, screaming bayonet charge, and after he skewered one Volksgrenadier dozens of others threw down their weapons and fled.
16 December 1944
The German battle plan had been formed based solely on situation maps, but when patrols discovered that a green American infantry division had been inserted into the line Fifth Panzer Army command altered its approach. The 106th Infantry Division, the "Golden Lions," had been raided to provide replacements for other divisions' combat losses. Hastily re-trained anti-aircraft gunners, washed-out pilot trainees and men of the Army Specialized Training Program filled the ranks instead. On the German side, the assault would be undertaken by the "ethnic Germans" of the 62nd Volksgrenadier Division Czech and Polish conscripts with little enthusiasm for their enemy's Fatherland.
Col. Friedrich Kittel had grand plans for his division: it would tear a gap in the American lines and his reserve battalion mounted on bicycles would dash through to capture St. Vith and the trains loaded with gasoline he imagined waiting there. Though the American defenders were inexperienced, Kittel's troops were even worse to get them to attack his officers had had to ply them liberally with alcohol and then lead from the front. Officer casualties were massive and progress was made only through sheer weight of numbers.
Twin Villages: The First Night
17 December 1944
Frustrated over his division's lack of progress, Hugo Kraas of 12th SS Panzer ordered his youthful soldiers to continue their assault after dark. The shattered Volksgrenadier battalions pulled back into the woods to re-form, while the Americans had been reinforced by Lt. Col. William McKinley's battalion of the 2nd Infantry Division and some tank destroyers.
The Germans had numbers and armor on their side; the Americans had stubbornness and a massive concentration of artillery: seven artillery battalions with 112 guns backed the defense, though communication with McKinley's forward observers had been lost. The grandson of President William McKinley held his positions through the night despite repeated German attempts to take the vital crossroads, and by midnight the Hitler Youth had seen their attack break down.
25 December 1944
The raw 75th Infantry Division arrived at the front on Christmas Eve and was immediately flung into action. A German tank column quickly broke through their lines and was only stopped by a lucky bazooka shot that knocked out a Panther so that the burning wreck it blocked the road. The next day the green infantrymen received air and armor support, and an order to attack the dreaded SS at the village of Grandmenil.
Third Armored Division's Task Force McGeorge had laid out its orange recognition panels properly, but the P38 Lightnings of 430th Fighter Squadron attacked them anyway, killing 38 men and wounding dozens more. The "American Luftwaffe" thoroughly crushed the attack and the SS had no problem driving back the handful of green riflemen who tried to advance without the tanks. Grandmenil would fall on the 26th to the same American forces but without air support.
26 December 1944
Recovered from the deadly "friendly fire" incident of Christmas Day and with additional tank reinforcements on their way, Task Force McGeorge made ready to resume its attack on Grandmenil. Meanwhile the SS prepared to renew their own attack up the road to Erezee where they had been stopped by the green troops of the 75th Infantry Division. The two attacking forces met on the day after Christmas.
The two forces crashed together, with the Panthers getting much the better of the tank duel. But the SS grenadiers had suffered terrible losses among their junior officers and lost much of their unit cohesion. Timely reinforcements made the difference, and it was the Germans who fell back as American tanks captured Grandmenil. Capt. John Jordan and his crew joined the attack after having spent the night near the village - trapped behind enemy lines, Jordan simply parked his tank next to several burned or abandoned Shermans and the SS men never examined them. When the Americans returned to Grandmenil, Jordan radioed in reports of German movements and when his own division's tanks drew close he joined them.
Twin Villages: Panzer Graveyard
18 December 1944
With the Lausdell crossroads in German hands, the SS could finally strike at the twin villages themselves. The panzers assaulted the stone buildings directly, backed by their own panzer grenadiers and Army infantrymen of the 12th Volksgrenadier Division, a veteran outfit despite its title. Inspired by McKinley's stand and the awesome artillery support, the Americans fought for every room of every building in both villages.
Punishing artillery fire had gutted the SS panzer grenadier battalions during the morning battle, but rather than await help from other formations 12th SS simply sent its tanks against the villages with little to no infantry support. American bazooka teams took a fearful toll of German armor in the narrow village streets: 60 by German admission, over 100 by American claims. The arrival of Volksgrenadier infantry eased the tank slaughter somewhat, but when night fell the Americans still held most of the villages.
Crossroads: Panzer Attack
20 December 1944
The Big Red One was adding to its huge list of battle honors, schooling the Hitler Youth in infantry anti-tank tactics. But as the officers of the 26th Infantry Regiment holding the manor farm took stock of their position, they found themselves almost out of anti-tank mines and bazooka rockets. If the Nazi tanks rolled forward again, it would be much harder to stop them.
The tired panzer grenadiers again suffered terrible casualties from the American rifle, machine gun and artillery fire. Heavy fog limited visibility, making it easier for the veteran American infantry to stalk and destroy the tanks that once again broke into the farm without infantry support. The Hitler Youth fell back again, and though skirmishing continued throughout the day the battle seemed to have ended. But the 12th SS Division would not easily set aside its hard-won reputation for fanaticism.
St. Vith: First Probe
18 December 1944
The town of St. Vith controlled a vital crossroads, but the German Fifth Panzer Army did not at first assign major forces to capture the town. Only on the offensive's third day did a Volksgrenadier division bring up its "mobile" battalion and advance half-heartedly on St. Vith. The disorganized defenders the senior American officer had abdicated command to a junior general had flung a cavalry squadron out to provide a thin screen northeast of the town.
The Germans made some initial progress, as the cavalrymen had little answer for the assault guns. When a company of tanks from the 9th Armored Division answered the cavalry's frantic calls for help, the balance shifted and over half of the German vehicles were left burning on the battlefield. There would be no easy capture of St. Vith.
Hell on Wheels
3 January 1945
When the German offensive had run its course, the Americans struck back with force. Rather than allow his troops to pull back to their much more defensible starting line, Adolf Hitler ordered them to remain in place. First Army's Omar Bradley urged his subordinates to look not at their December 16th positions as the objective, but rather the Rhine River. First, however, they would have to fight their way through the thick snows that had fallen in the Ardennes over the past week.
The fresh 2nd Armored Division slogged steadily southwards, but found it heavy going thanks to the ever-deepening snow. Previous snowfalls had frozen, making the roads icy, while drifts had piled several feet deep in the woods. By felling trees to block the roads the SS forced the Americans to clear each roadblock with infantry fighting on foot before the tanks could skitter forward but over and over the GI's did so, pressing the Nazis steadily back.
St. Vith: The Fall
21 December 1944
The American 7th Armored Division had raced to St. Vith and flung its units into defensive positions haphazardly as they arrived. A handful of troops from the shattered 106th Infantry Division joined them, and a few small units of the 9th Armored Division also became intertwined. Nevertheless they put up stout resistance, but when the Germans sorted out their own confusion and launched a mass attack numbers made a difference.
Though unsettled by the rocket fire, the Americans resisted with the aid of tanks and tank destroyers. When the huge Royal Tiger tanks finally rumbled into the battle zone, the Germans blinded the American tankers with flares and while they were still stunned the huge 88mm guns annihilated the Shermans. The American commander apparently suffered a nervous breakdown and fled the battlefield, yet his junior officers refused to give up the now-uncoordinated fight and 7th Armored Division's Combat Command B lost over 900 men in fierce close-quarters fighting. By midnight the Germans had secured St. Vith.
23 December 1944
Maj. Arthur C. Parker of the 598th Field Artillery Battalion found himself guarding the crossroads of Baraque de Fraiture with three howitzers and their crews, the only roadblock stopping the fresh 2nd SS Panzer Division from driving deep into the American rear along Highway N-15 to both unravel the defenses to the north and block the coming counter-offensive. Ordered to a rest area to help re-constitute the shattered 106th Infantry Division, Parker ignored the Army's bureaucracy and instead began gathering scattered pieces of other units as they went past anti-aircraft gunners, cavalrymen, and glider infantrymen. Finally the 82nd Airborne and 3rd Armored Divisions sent what few reserves they had to help hold the crossroads, just in time to face the SS assault.
The Americans fought hard, but with little cohesion thanks to the presence of troops from three different divisions (3rd Armored, 82nd Airborne and 106th Infantry) and at least three independent battalions. The defenders held up the SS throughout the night - a vital task, as the Germans dared not move by daylight now that the weather had cleared enough for Allied airpower to join the fray but crumbled by dawn and a regimental commander of 82nd Airborne authorized a withdrawal. Thanks to the confused command structure many American units never received this order, and casualties are impossible to determine but were severe. The road to Liege, the major realistic German objective, lay open but 2nd SS Panzer lacked both the fuel and the command competence to exploit their victory.
See part 3 of this preview here.
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