Recently I have been reading a lot of material about the German assault troops tactics. Two key books on the matter that I would recommend are Stephen Bull's "German Assault Troops of the First World War" and Bruce Gundmundsson's "Stormtroop Tactics". A couple of very handy Osprey books are also interesting if you want to get a thorough introduction on the matter: "Trench Warfare (2)" also by Stephen Bull and "German Stormtrooper".
I will not deal in detail with the genesis and evolution of the stormtroopers in this post (I'd like to write a more specific blog entry in the future) but I will discuss now some of my thoughts when approaching the theme from the wargaming perspective.
Stormtroop tactics were more evolution than revolution, and some of its key fetaures can be found in small scale actions already in 1915. The widesparead use of hand grenades, together with the development of mortars (grenatenwerfer), close support artillery tactics, flamethrowers and, lately (1917), light machine guns, combined with the ineffective tactical manuals of the pre-war period to confront the reality of the trench warfare were catalysts for the emergence of the German stormtroop ideal and the birth of a legend.
Their real test was in 1918 with the offensives launched between March and July of that year. The spearheading elements were endorsed with the objective of pushing forward as far as they could, bypassing strong nests of resistance and reaching the far end of the defensive systems, creating confusion in the allied command system and threatening the artillery positions.
The consideration of the stormtroopers in the game should take into account the tactical situation and the squad organisations in year 1918. The March battles saw the Germans successfully piercing the Allied frontline thanks to an overwhelming superiority of fire and training.
However, as the year went by, the erosion of the German units due to the constant battling and the difficulties to bring sufficient replacements (both in terms of quantity and quality) together with the build-up of material and men of the Allied forces, completely reversed the situation after July 1918.
Simulating the initial opening offensives meant that the British player's fate was to lose the game, as the only "realistic" approach to the the situation in that period implied a totally "unbalanced" game... hardly an incentive to enroll players of either side (the British because who likes to play a game in which he'd be steamrolled; the German because it was going to be really boring).
The only way I foresee to create interest among the potential players was to put some harsh victory conditions to the German who, even if in possesion of the field (as you will see in the second part of this post) they could still be loosing the game.
My scenario design was therefore supported on three key elements:
- Time constraints, to force the German player to attack, attack and attack;
- Economy of resources: avoid casualties now to continue attacking in the future;
- Need to make decissions: different potential victory conditions (based on a points system), but mutually exclusive (need to choose one path to victory before the game starts and stick to it).
So it was that last Sunday I decided to put a simple game, but that was much more intensive played that I inititally thought; or at least this is the feedback that I have received so far from my game-mates. The game had an understrength British platoon defending a trench line after a hurricane bombardment and two elite German Stoss platoons having to cross the full length of the table and to exit through the British rear. How this scenario fits with my previous comments?:
- Time constraints: the Germans had to advanced across the 6" feet length of table in 10 turns; after turn 10 the game would extend for a maxium of 6 turns using a D6 roll (the first extended turn would take place if the die roll> 1; the second extended turn if the die roll>2, etc). But the turn countdown did not start with the first snifter card, but only after the British (in initial hidden positions) made their first fire.
- Economy of resources: each trooper, NCO and special weapons (flamethrowers...) is assigned a value in terms of victory points (VP).
- Decisions, decisions: the German player had a Grenatenwerefer section that could be placed off-table (and therefore be protected from the British fire) and a flamethrower team; additionally he was "offered" additional VPs if the British bunker was controlled by the end of the game. Would you put everything on the table and try to cross the defensive system? Would you leave the GWs off-table to support your attack and forfeit the VPs awarded? Would you save your flamethrower team or use it to take the bunker (forfeiting again the VPs granted for exiting the table)?
Map, forces and objectives
I did not want to get too complex (giving that I was testing the system) and decided to use one of the maps of the Stout Hearts scenario book, showing of a heavily shelled position (actually in Verdun) in which the trench system is not longer a continuous line but a number of irregular segments dotted with shell craters. The key defensive position were the remannents of a former farm building, now transformed in a reinforced bunker command post.
We played in a 6" x 4" table that you can see here from the German side (line A-B)...
... and here from the British side.
The German forces comprised two Zugs or platoons. The first Zug was made of veteran troops, with good morale and agressive stance. It was commanded by a Leutnant (BM level III) and had two Gruppes with two squads each (one LMG squad with the LMG crew+5 rifles and one assault squad with 8 bombers and trench cleaners) . The Second Zug was of somewhat lower quality (regular troops with good morale but also aggressive) and had three Gruppes, two of them like those of the Zug 1 and a third Gruppe only with a reinforced assault squad (10 bombers, trench cleaners and rifles) but no LMG.
The German player mission was to exit the table through the British rear, getting 1,5 VPs for each trooper, 3VPs for each NCO/Officer and 8 VP for each special weapon. He was also awarded 8VPs for controlling the bunker in the British trench line. The Germans could deployed in blinds up to 6 inches from the line A-B
The British player had a HQ section with two officers (Big Man levels III and II respectively), an LMG team, 1 sniper and two runners; an 8-man rifle squad; a rifle-grenadier squad with four 2-man teams; and finally an 10-man LMG squad. The objective was to make as many casualties as possible to the Germans. getting 1 VP per trooper, 2VPs per NCO/Officer and 5VPs per special weapon eliminated plus another 8VPs for retaining the bunker under control.
The British command unit also had a SOS flare pistol that would activate a fire mission with 4 artillery points, two turns after being fired. The British had to pre-plot where the the fire mission was expected to land in the map, but yet it would be subject to a 2D6 deviation dice.
The British deployment was as follows: the HQ section in the bunker, the LMG section to its right, the rifle section on the left flank and the rifle grenadiers in the rear. The Germans concentrated their forces on their left flank and decided to leave the grenatenwerfer off-table. The flamethrower team was attached to the 3rd Gruppe of Zug 2 .
The German blinds were easily spotted by the British in the first turns and after a couple of snifters, the British started firing, triggering the 10-turn countdown. The Germans dispatched two sections to their right, that absorbed most of the rifle and rifle-grenadier sections fire during the game.
The German Gruppes advanced at snail pace, looking anxiously the cover of the shell craters and using most of the times one action dice to take cover, frequently stopping to put LMG fire on the British defenders.
In the meantime, the British were firing almost at leisure, even exhausting the rifle-grenades supplies; the number of German casualties kept on mounting after the offborad artillery called in turn 3 fell on the dense formations ...
...until some well directed rounds of the grenatenwerfers and dense German infantry fire concetrated on the British LMG squad wiped out the unit, enabling two German squads to advance and to close assault the bunker, capturing the occupants withouth casualties.
The remaining British rifle and rifle-grenadiers (now acting as a standard infantry) squad tried to stop tide, launching hand-to-hand assaults that were easily rejected by the more experienced German stormtroopers with heavy casualties to the British, who finally broke and flee from the battlefield.
Was that smell in the German side the scent of victory? German sections now run like devil on their heels, but we were already in turn 7 and only half way through the table ... turn 8, kept on running... turn 9, what a tension!!! .... turn 10 and now several German sections at the edge of table!!!!
The fate of the battle now peding in a humble D6... how many additional turns will the German had?.... Roll the die...OMG!!!... a 1!!!!!. No game extension!!!!
End of the game when victory was so close at hand!!!!. Grim faces of the German players....
... and compared them to those of the British....
I am really quite happy with the scenario; it was really a close-run thing and even if the game would have extended for a couple of additional turns I'm not sure the Germans would have offset the accumulation of British VPs due to casualties.
I think it was really well played by both sides; perhaps the Germans were too cautious at the beginning, but it is understandable as they did not know that this time they were not facing a deadly HMG (a hard-learned lessons in other games: one never have sufficient cover when facing a bunker that ususally contains one of those muderous machines).
Most reconforting, both German and British expressed to have enjoyed the game and, even better, we have enrolled a new club member to our "cosy" Lardie group.