Operation Io – 10 July 1944

Operation Io is my title for our WW2 miniatures wargame played on 2 June 2012 at Abbey Wood Irregulars in Frome. It used 15mm models and our new Mission Command ruleset.

Dramatis Personae

Pete Connew and myself as umpires. 2 German players (Jerry and John) and 3 British players (James, Matt and Michael). Generous thanks to all participants, and also to Ken Natt, who’s Operation Jupiter Battlefront scenario was used as the basis of our offering.

Scenario: Operation Jupiter is the name of Monty’s latest attempt to break out of the Normandy bridgehead. Caen has fallen a month after D-Day – not exactly as planned – and the British are held up by German occupation of Hill 112, a relatively small but important piece of higher ground overlooking the British positions towards the beaches. An attempt to take it has already failed at the end of June, but now a bigger push is planned. Our little satellite game takes place just to the east of Hill 112, with the 5th Dorsets supporting the main attack by pushing through Les Duanes and Chateau de Fontaine to the Eterville Road.

Pete and I had planned this game as a relatively small one, so that players could learn the now re-written rules, and so we could take into account desertions caused by the Diamond Jubilee celebrations. The game set the British the simple task of pushing up the 6’x4′ table without worrying about flanks, and the Germans the simple task of stopping them. Game length was set at 12 turns, to end with the British in theory formed up on the Eterville Road for phase 2.

Forces

Forces were not quite historically accurate, but fairly close. The Brits had 5 Dorset – a pretty much standard British Infantry Battalion, plus B Squadron, 9th Royal Tank Regiment in Churchill VI tanks, plus 3 regiments of 25 pounders, representing most of 43 Wessex Division’s divisional artillery – we gave them 112 regiment for ‘free usage’, with the other two regiments performing a rolling barrage during turns 1 to 6. The Germans had 2 companies of Panzergrenadiers from 22 Panzergrenadier Regiment (ostensibly SS, but Wehrmacht in our representation), with most of a panzergrenadier heavy company in support, together with a battery of Hummels and one of Wespes. Unfortunately for the British we *did* include a Heavy Tank company as a reinforcement.

Briefing

Starting at about 09:30 on the day, we had an extensive briefing on the rules, the table and the forces. Then both teams ran through their plans and marked up positions on their sketch maps. We were pushing troops around by 11:15. I was grateful for the extensive time for briefings, because I wanted both teams to be comfortable with the new action sequence we were introducing. Players carry out actions by company, selecting two actions for each element in the active company and completing that company before moving on to the next. We found that this gave a good game flow, with choices of how to sequence the elements in each company that were important tactically. With the limitation of only two actions, a single element cannot move, shoot and communicate (for example provide reports or receive orders) all at once, which introduces realistic delays in the transmission of changes of plan. This is particularly important when trying to co-ordinate artillery strikes – the British had a few near blue-on-blue situations with 25 pdr shots falling short, and the Germans managed to finish off one of their own shattered companies with a misplaced strike. So, some realism and fog of war there.

The game was intended to last 12 turns, representing the time between 05:00 and 07:00. By the end the British were supposed to have a couple of companies ready on the Eterville Road start line, or alternatively the Germans were to have stopped them short.

South East to Chateau de Fontaine

South East to Chateau de Fontaine, D Coy in foreground. Les Duanes burns middle left.

Action overview

The battle started with a rolling barrage from two British 25 pdr regiments of Divisional Artillery – this was pre-plotted for turns 1 to 6, and we gave the British some flexibility about where to put it. They decided to steam-roller the Horseshoe Wood (no doubt influenced by reports that it was an important German position), so the HE and smoke barrage rolled across it and back, then forward again to good effect. The 112th Regiment of artillery was available for pre-planned or on call strikes. The British used it to stomp Les Duanes into the ground – and the farm was fairly quickly demolished (our rules for structural damage proving easily up to the task).

The British plan of attack called for D Coy plus AT guns to advance on the right (west of Les Duanes) to the ridge and hold at that point. This was intended to command the open ground beyond. Meanwhile A and C Coys, supported on the left by B Coy, from the rear by HQ and with direct support in the line from Churchills, were to advance on a broad front to the east of Les Duanes, the right-most Coy ear-marked to prod any remaining Germans in the farm. These Coys would then exploit through Chateau de Fontaine to the road beyond. As B Coy moved up to extend the battalion line, the eastern attack turned into a three company frontage advance with Churchills supporting immediately to the east of the farm.

D Coy Advances

D Coy Advances

D Company’s advance is easily narrated. Unknown to the British, who neglected immediate battlefield reconnaissance, the Germans had deployed the whole of 5th Panzergrenadier company dug in on the forward edge of the ridgeline (despite umpire recommendations to go for a defence of the reverse slope in some depth). In addition there was a minefield immediately to the west of Les Duanes, fortuitously avoided by the advancing infantry. When the small amount of covering smoke cleared, the Germans had a clear view of the advancing infantry and of the limbered 6 pdr battery (too close, too close!). The latter were quickly put out of action and the infantry very roughly handled. An HMG and mortar skilfully positioned behind the minefield gave the Germans some cross-fire, and the remains of the company pulled back to their start line and took no further part in the proceedings.

Remains of the D

Remains of the D

The main British attack ran into half of the other Panzergrenadier company (6th), also deployed and dug in on the forward edge of the ridge. Supporting elements were back in the Horseshoe Wood, about to suffer under the barrage. However, the British infantry had the Churchills and mortars in support. A Coy was quickly engaged by the main German trench line and suffered significant losses. B Coy on the right advanced carefully into the ruins of Les Duanes, supported by the tanks, thereby outflanking the German trench line. The Panzergrenadiers opted to bug out and retired back into the woods, expecting the artillery barrage to continue southwards. However, it was programmed to roll back north, and it duly did so, breaking the company. In accordance with their own plan, German artillery struck Horseshoe Wood as the British advanced into it, but the shells fell short, catching the survivors of the broken company and narrowly missing 22 Battalion’s HQ. The immediate result of the main attack was that the German defenders were lost, but one British company had taken very significant casualties, and another had suffered a little.

Occupying Les Duanes and the Ridge

Occupying Les Duanes and the Ridge

Significantly at this stage, just as the British barrage fell silent, the German artillery had the range of the British line at Horseshoe Wood – the British never located the German FOs, deployed at each end of the ridge. Seeking to maintain this position and use it as a springboard for further advance, C Coy stayed there under fire, when perhaps pulling back would have been a safer option. 112 Artillery regiment, having been shelling Chateau de Fontaine successfully, was switched to counter-battery action and effectively silenced the Wespe battery.

The Churchills now ranged forward to and beyond Chateau de Fontaine, leaving B Coy to advance along the road into Chateau de Fontaine, supported on their left by the remains of A and C Coys. It looked as if the British, despite heavy losses, might win the day.

Not so. We’d given the Germans a chance to gain the help of a company of 502nd Heavy Tank Battalion. These tanks had refueled in double-quick time and took up blocking positions on the bocage on the Eterville Road due south of the Chateau de Fontaine. They revealed their position by shooting up a reconnoitering Bren carrier, but the Churchills were already too far forward to pull back easily. Smoke became their friend, and realistically, they would have withdrawn at this point. Instead the commander decided to have a go at the Tigers, and demonstrated how ineffective the 75mm/L40 gun is against their frontal armour. It didn’t help that one of the Tigers moved round the flank of the Churchills’ position, so rather than the Churchills getting the Tigers in the flank, it was the other way round.

Churchills Meet Tigers

Churchills Meet Tigers

As the Tigers were deploying to stop the Churchills, 5th Kompanie moved back towards Chateau de Fontaine. This movement coincided with the advance of B Coy, the two units separated by the hedges of the main road. The Germans were quickest to react and successfully engaged the head of B Coy, which broke and fell back towards Les Duanes.

Denouement

The 5th Ko Panzergrenadier counterattack and the stop line of the Tigers were decisive. All British companies had been damaged or written down, and only a single Churchill element survived the encounter with the Tigers – an unfair fight in any event. However, as 22 Panzergrenadier had suffered the loss of two companies (the heavy weapons of 8 Ko having largely been lost to 25 pdr fire), it was unlikely that the Germans could retake the ridge line, even if anxious British calls for SP antitank guns were being made to Brigade at 07:00.

The British attack this day had failed, but the Germans had suffered irreplaceable losses of manpower. The result was roughly in line with the historical results of the overall attack in the area of Hill 112, though the British had pushed on to the next village before the Tigers hit them – we took a bit of historical licence to introduce the Tigers early.

Critique

It’s interesting to note what might have happened if either side had fought the battle in accordance with expected doctrine, versus the actual actions of their opponent.

The expected British attack mode would have been a ‘two up and two back’ approach following in on the barrage, with Churchills supporting and the two rear companies ready to exploit through the other two. Deploying and operating in this fashion to the east of Les Duanes would have caught the forward German deployment in the barrage, at least suppressing it. Bearing in mind that this German company (6th) bugged out even without the barrage, I would strongly argue that it would have been destroyed quickly (as happened historically to the forward German outposts in the historical battle). Pounding Les Duanes was a good idea in any event, as this unhinges the German line. The British would then have been unopposed except for artillery fire on the way to Chateau de Fontaine, as 5 Ko was out of position beyond the farm. A British company as a right flank block for this advance would have prevented any further intervention from 5 Ko, and it’s not impossible to believe that the Churchills, with perhaps some Bren carrier borne infantry might have made it to the Eterville Road start line before the arrival of the Tigers. Interestingly it was their own barrage playing back and forth over Horseshoe Wood for several turns that held up the British. With a more conventional approach, their advance should have been more swift.

The expected German defence was a reverse slope defence in depth centred on strong points, particularly at Les Duanes, Horseshoe Wood and Chateau de Fontaine. Digging in within the buildings would have given them more protection from artillery fire, though troops in Les Duanes would probably have been doomed. In this circumstance the main fight would have been at Chateau de Fontaine, more defensible than elsewhere, while carefully positioned hidden elements behind the ridge or hedge lines could have given some cross-fire from flanks and rear to slow down the British. The Churchills would have found it much more difficult to range forward, because the German Panzerschreck teams could have been used – the Panzerschrecks were unable to engage the Churchills in the game. Unfortunately the efficiency of the Tigers, the surprise attack of 5 Ko on B Coy and the great width of the British attack meant that the weaknesses of the German defences could not be explored.

Thanks to all the players for a very enjoyable day, and a good exercise for our rules.

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