Hell on Wheels 2: Frome Big Game for May 2019

Our Frome Big Game for May 2019 was a second version of the Mission Command: Normandy game we ran at Salute – All Hell (on Wheels) Broke Out. It was set in the area south of St Lo on 27 July 1944 during Operation Cobra, the American breakout
from Normandy. The scenario is mostly historical, but simplified for ease of play. The US aim for this stage of Operation Cobra was to break through the German positions south-west and south of St Lo, then strike to Coutances and the coast, thereby cutting off the majority of the German 7th Army and opening the way to Brittany. The German aim was to prevent the breakthrough, and later, to escape the encirclement. In the previous 2 days in the area of the front for the scenario, US 30th Infantry Division had cleared the way for the armoured advance, and the CCA of 2d Armored Division (Hell on Wheels) had broken through due south to Canisy. Now, CCB must create an angle of advance to the south-west and the roads to Cérences and the coast. The scenario starts in the morning of 27 July with leading units of US 2d Armored Division’s CCB advancing from Canisy.

The purpose of the scenario was to set the American players the problem of co-ordinating their forces quickly against a much smaller German force. Historically, CCB more-or-less brushed aside the mixed force of Panzer Lehr that the Germans pushed desperately at them here, then motored forward encountering little resistance for the rest of the day. For our purposes, we modelled the Advance Guard of CCB/2d Armored Division, consisting of a couple of tank companies, supported by 2 companies of armored infantry, 1 of tank destroyers, plus some reconnaissance and self-propelled artillery. It also had fighter-bomber support from P-47 Thunderbolts. To make a game of it, we boosted the Germans a little from their historical forces and gave them a day to dig in – so, only simple entrenchments and a small number of alternative positions. The Americans win if they can exit 3 companies (including 1 of tanks) off the German end of the table within 12 turns (2 hours of game time). This is effectively a 4 kilometre+ advance through the last German resistance and then off into open country.

For the Salute game, the Germans had a few tank obstacles, which had the effect of funnelling the American vehicles. This led to a bottleneck that enabled the Germans to focus their defence. With masterful play from Richard, one of our best MC:N players, the Americans failed to complete their conversion of the breakthrough to a quick exploitation. Holding up CCB would have meant that other components of 2d and 3d US Armored Divisions would have had more work to do. However, the purpose of the Salute demonstration game was to show off the MC:N system and that worked very well.

At Frome, we removed the rather unhistorical tank obstacles, widened the table a bit and modified both sides forces slightly. The Americans gained the rest of the tank battalion – as 2d Armored Div was a ‘heavy’ version, this consisted of a company of Stuarts – and the rest of the Field Artillery Regiment. The Germans gained a StuGIII element.

We had 6 American players, 2 German and myself as umpire. A few players had played at Salute, so knew the scenario. In fact, Richard switched sides to become the American C-in-C, while Lloyd flipped from American to German.

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American setup

North is at the top of the board for simplicity! The Americans took note of the cramped nature of their development in the previous game, so their setup involved an infantry and tank company (in MC:N, ‘joint activation’) in the south, a second such grouping in the north, with recce supplied across the full length of the stream, with the Stuarts concentrated also in the north. A second echelon was to be provided by the tank destroyers and various assets of HQ units.

Artillery firepower was concentrated in a regimental force, for smoke (initially) and then for pounding various targets. Though it didn’t cause many casualties during the day, this was because the Germans were not forced to defend in static positions – and the artillery fire did make them move once they had been discovered.

The American recce was extremely unlucky. The Germans had put troops well forward, including their tanks, so some recce were hit as they crossed the stream. Unfortunately, each separate recce group managed to fail their morale tests, so they were largely thrown back and unable to report on the situation till the follow-up troops had already crossed. In fact, this joint infantry and tank group in the north should really have been delayed, owing to lack of the recce information, but it was hit almost immediately by flanking tank fire, so it started to lose Shermans. Therefore, it launched its attack despite the recce failure.

Standing orders from the American players for these experienced troops was always to have significant elements in overwatch to respond to fire. This worked very well and the Germans quickly lost most of their tanks in forward positions… leaving some StuGs as their sole remaining armour component.

Note the knocked out armoured car element in the stream above. In the distance is a knocked out Panzer IV element that had been giving flank fire onto the Shermans, defiladed from attack by the southern group. It was destroyed by the northern group’s overwatching units.

The northern companies ran into entrenched panzerfausts in a patch of brush. Although they inflicted losses, the Germans were relatively quickly overwhelmed. The yellow cubes are suppression markers. Note the empty entrenchment marker next to the panzerfaust element – an HMG element has just legged it, as it could do very little against the armour. The tank destroyer second echelon is just crossing the stream.

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Southern companies advance by bounds

The southern companies advanced swiftly and by bounds against little opposition. The German tanks in the way were fixed on the northern advance and were dealt with by them, leaving the southern units with a relatively clear route.

In the picture above, the 2 leading Sherman elements (representing half a company) have taken up a position on the ridge – they will go into overwatch so the other elements of the companies can pass through to the village just out of shot to the south. Note the mortar elements at the back ready to give support by smoke or HE.

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Pounding Le Sault

This is one of my own iPhone pictures to show an overview of the early part of the American advance. Note the good spacing of the tanks in the bottom right of the shot, contrasting with the necessarily bunched up vehicles near the road. If the Germans had had medium artillery, this bunching would have been a problem for the Americans.

The StuG towards the top of the picture has engaged the Shermans with opportunity fire. IIRC, return fire was inhibited, because of the shoulder of the woods. Hence, the importance of supporting artillery and air power – Thunderbolts were used to try to shift the Germans. Although the aircraft didn’t do much damage, they were a concern for the Germans, as it proved difficult to impossible for them to hold their positions. Without time to dig in properly, the Germans were to find it a very hard day.

The village of Le Sault above was being pounded by US artillery. Meanwhile the leading infantry of the southern group was hit by mortar fire – red cube is a casualty, yellows are suppressions. This was a well coordinated advance. If there *had* been opposition here, the Americans were well prepared.

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Another advantage the Americans had was the ever-present Piper Cub spotter plane for the artillery. It was used primarily to continue to report the whereabouts of the StuGs, which therefore had to keep moving (largely back) to avoid reprisals from aircraft or artillery. Under MC:N rules, the spotter plane can stay in the air for 6 turns, so this was half of the game. It would have been vulnerable to antiaircraft fire, but in this scenario the Germans only had MGs and preferred to remain concealed. 2cm auto-cannons would have probably discouraged this brazen Piper Cub.

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Taking the center

Part of the northern group of companies flooded over the raised ground in the centre, accepting some light casualties, primarily from mortar fire. Personally, I would have been a little more circumspect, but fortunately the Germans were unable to respond with an artillery strike (they had only 1 battery of Wespe, and limited ammunition).

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The final ridge

The final ridge contained the main concentrated German infantry force – a single coherent element (in MC:N, this type has integrated MG and panzerfaust – this unit also has a command function).  An attempt to overrun it with half-tracks failed. It might have been better to have simply shot it to bits, but as speed was of the essence, I think an overrun attempt wasn’t a terrible idea. Note that it has now been suppressed thoroughly; each suppression is -1 on its chance to hit. As it is surrounded, it’s likely to surrender (in MC:N, if an element is forced to retire or retreat with no clear route, and enemy is within 5cm (100 metres), then it surrenders).

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Smoke at the enemy position

This smoke (above) was used to prevent the StuGs from engaging the Americans in the centre. It’s good practice to put the smoke close to the enemy position, to minimise their field of fire.

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Final position

By the end of the game, the American infantry and tank companies in the south had exited to the left (west), to continue the exploitation with no resistance ahead of them. They were quickly joined by the tank destroyer company to confirm the American victory. Only mopping up remains to be done, while the StuGs will pull back north and west to try to fight another day. Note the empty abandoned entrenchments over the battlefield.

The last action of the game was a massive bombardment of the woods to the bottom left of the picture. As luck would have it, this was the exact position of the German kampfgruppe. They managed to flee with only light casualties; it could have been much worse.

For a more historical version of this game, keep the Americans as indicated, but remove the German’s StuG element, give them no alternative positions and no proper tank positions. It’s important then to focus very much on American command control. We now prefer to separate the C-in-Cs from the tabletop, so they have rely on subordinates to tell them what’s going on.

Pictures: mainly from Neil Ford’s excellent work.

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