Mission Command: Hanging out the washing 1

Saturday, 7 December 2013. A small gathering of Mission Commanders at Frome to try out the new fortification rules for MC. The scenario: A rather hastily put together one owing to lack of sufficient time (other game design projects, including our Ivor The Engine board game, getting in the way) saw a British brigade group feeling its way forward to the main line of resistance of the Westwall (or Siegfried Line) in February 1945. This was a pseudo-historical scenario, so people couldn’t look up what happened. We had 4 British players (there were a few late dropouts owing to Christmas stuff), a single German player (2 hoped for, but work intervened) and 2 umpires.

Dear British players: The Americans to the south are pushing east towards the Rhine in a series of difficult operations. As they move east, the British corps position, of which your forces are a component, have not kept pace, so the American flank has lengthened and there is the potential for a dangerous German response in the future. Montgomery has decided that your forces need to push back the weak German forces immediately to your east and south, preparatory to crossing the River Wurm, an important tributary of the Ruhr. This will close out the salient. The difficulty is that the Wurm forms part of the Siegfried Line (the Westwall).

Although aerial reconnaissance has been carried out, the exact locations and strength of the enemy’s defences are not known. Today’s operation has two limited objectives: (i) find out where the German main line of resistance is, and locate any outlying defences; (ii) push the German forces that are to the west of Munchenkirchen back to their MLR. This operation will help planners to decide where to cross the Wurm.

In contrast, dear German player: You and your men are exhausted, but at least you’re still alive. If you can hold the Rhine, maybe the Führer can come up with a plan to throw back the allies. In the last fortnight the pressure has eased slightly. You’re still grossly outnumbered, the allies have air supremacy, artillery supremacy and tank supremacy, but you’re holding out. Your unit is Kampfgruppe Hoffnung, positioned just west of the River Wurm, near to the town of Munchenkirchen, which is part of the Westwall. Now you’ve heard that the British have started to move forward again; at least you have good defences close to hand.

The German mission would have been a delaying action, but the Germans don’t do those – they do ‘defence’ and ‘withdrawal’, though sometimes it can feel the same in the late war period.

The game worked well within its confines. Meaning that there’s a good scenario in there waiting to get out, and I should have spent more time preparing (but that’s often the way). The British more or less succeeded in their mission. The German left flank was pushed back with some loss, as a roughly company strength group got itself surrounded in a relatively isolated strongpoint, which was then demolished by petard mortars – a very effective weapon. The British advance was cautious and probably about as fast as historically, I guess. They pushed forward roughly 1.5 km in about 3 hours, taking casualties mainly from artillery (well emplaced and far back ex-Soviet 15.2cm howitzers primarily), and having to deploy against successive pillboxes and dug in anti-tank positions. There was extensive, judicious and effective use of smoke, which limited German mortar fire particularly, and  an initial rolling barrage. Counter-battery fire knocked out one Wespe battery, but despite several attempts, couldn’t seem to get the other one.

The Germans managed to knock out a couple of the Churchill ‘dustbins’ through flanking fire – as one British participant put it (I think approvingly) “enfilading fire from a defilade position”. It takes a lot of work to design a good defense, and I’ve learned a lot myself from doing this setup and seeing what does and doesn’t work. German artillery (as historically) was the killer to the British; several companies got pasted, including some engineers working on a road block, and this caused loss of time as they naturally pulled back to regroup (‘ran away’ as the Germans might put it). However, back they came to resume the advance or to put in a fresh company. They were also able to bring up supporting tanks too, which the Germans were unable to do (having no tanks and virtually no fuel). For the British it was really a matter of time and grinding casualties, put down smoke and artillery shells, receive surprise fire from a new strongpoint, bring up the engineers and smash through; an essential combined arms effort which was difficult to co-ordinate (though I’d say that John, an experienced real life military commander, made it look fairly easy).

The fortification rules worked well – one d20 roll and a lookup table to determine the outcome, with graded effects. It was apparent quickly (and correctly) that although the field guns and small arms could keep the Germans’ heads down, it needed heavier weapons, engineers and demolitions to get through. And then the only German defence is flanking antitank fire against the engineers and their heavy equipment, and artillery fire to try to stop the infantry. Unfortunately for the Germans, there’s just not enough artillery to hold back the tide completely. So as long as the British can take the casualties, they will probably manage to grind through. Then again, this was only the outpost line and extensions to the main line of resistance. The main Westwall was going to require more firepower to overcome. Next time.

Many thanks to all the participants.

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