Flames of War: Breakthrough Mission

bocageShortly after fighting ashore and in the iair drop zones on D-Day, the Allies quickly discovered a new enemy awaiting them: bocage.

Lacing the Normandy countryside, bocage was a tight overgrown network of hedgerows of shrubbery, stone walls and copses of trees lining the rural French fields. All but impassable by Allied armor and difficult to fight through for infantry, bocage slowed the push inland and delayed the taking of key objectives. It was only through the quick-thinking and inventiveness of the Allies that new tactics were hastily developed. To free-up the passage of tanks, hedgerow cutters were welded to the front of armored platoons and demolition crews blasted gaps to continue the forward march. Fighting amidst the bocage would prove to be deadly for both sides, as recounted in the 1988 paper by Captain Michael Doubler. It’s required reading for anyone interested in the tactics of bocage warfare.

This past weekend at Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, four of us got together to slog it out in the bocage tabletop of a Breakthrough Mission as provided in the Flames of Wars rules. The mission scenario calls for use of the Mobile Reserves rule for the defenders and the Delayed Reserves rule for the attackers. The Germans chose to field a 1250-point Fallschirmjager company backed with heavy machine guns, a Nebelwerfer rocket battery, Stugs and Pak 40 anti-tank guns plus a 1250-point tank company armed with mechanized infantry, Panzer IVs, Stugs and one imposing Tiger tank. We Americans also fielded two companies beginning with a 1250-point rifle company with three infantry platoons, Shermans, a weapons platoon of light machine guns and mortars and a P-47 Thunderbolt for air support. The other US company was pulled from the 82nd Airborne with a Priest mobile artillery battery and Stuart light tanks. To aid in navigation of bocage, the US armor were outfitted with hedgerow cutters. The Germans had six turns to take an objective and it would be the Americans’ job to stop them.

BTMapThe table was laid out thick with bocage surrounding a small village and a nearby farm. Americans rolled as the defenders meaning all our mobile units — all the tanks and artillery we had — were going to be held off the board as reserves. I hid all my rifle platoons in the town’s buildings and stuck the machine guns and mortars in the field between the Germans and their nearest objective. In the opposite corner, the Airborne platoons deployed near the farm hoping to camp out on the German objectives for the duration of the game.

As the attackers, the Germans deployed in their assigned corner of the table. Their rocket battery, anti-tank guns, heavy machine guns and the majority of their infantry dug into the field outside of the town. The large tank company deployed in the adjacent field. Held off-table was a Stug and a Fallschirmjager platoon, hoping for the a delayed reserves roll beginning on the third turn to put them right on top of one of their objectives at the opposite corner.

IMG_2177As the attackers, the Germans got the first turn, quickly pressing their armor toward the center of the table while the rocket battery, heavy machine guns and anti-tank cannons poured fire into the town, pinning one US platoon. Reserves failed to arrive on the first US turn and the P-47’s first run came up empty. As per the plan, the US Airborne pushed into the farm buildings to hold the nearest objective.

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IMG_2181In the second turn, the Germans continued to light up the town with the US companies pinned in the buildings. A Stug opened fire down a lane but the Americans avoided being hit. US bazooka teams moved into the barn at the edge of town and took shots on the a German Stug and approaching half tracks but to no effect. The US machine gunners attempted to fire and then assault the nearing Germans but were thwarted by the thick bocage and failed terror test against a nearby Panzer. The Thunderbolt once again on did nothing its second run while the Airborne units at the farm ran across the road into the treeline, securing the second German objective.

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IMG_2191In turn three, the German players thankfully failed their first attempt at calling in reserves. Pressing on, German half tracks raced through the town toward the American weapons platoon which took heavy casualties and lost the machine gunners to fire from both sides. Stugs and artillery continued to pound the American rifle platoons in the town. At the top of their turn, the Shermans arrived and made a hasty path to cut a hole in the bocage standing between the rest of their reserves and the nearby road.

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IMG_2189Things really heated up in turn four as the Germans rolled on their first reserved Stug platoon near one of the objectives and the awaiting US Airborne. German infantry and Panzers pushed into the next field, knocking out the US mortars and eliminating their first platoon. The Americans pulled in the rest of their reserves but immediately created a bottleneck of Shermans and Stuarts as paths were cleared through the bocage. The P-47 came in hard on the Germans in the field, knocking out several units and destroying a Panzer. Finally, the fearless Airborne did what they’re trained to do and burst from the treeline to assault the newly-arrived Stug platoon. Two Stugs were destroyed and the third fled the field after a failed morale test. The objective was still held by the Americans but things were looking dicey with Germans coming in from all sides.

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IMG_2200The fifth turn started with the final German reserve platoon arriving amid their burning tanks and assaulting the US Airborne. Through a series of attacks and counterattacks, the two groups whittled each other down. The Germans were eventually ground down to two remaining stands, lost their morale check and were destroyed. The victory for the Americans was short-lived, however, and the heavily-damaged Airborne platoon also failed a morale save and likewise fled the battle. With the game nearing it’s end, a Sherman was destroyed and blocked the road. All the US armor and artillery was effectively shut-out of the game. As the Germans covered an objective, the American P-47 made one final run to force a German morale check but to no avail. The Germans had won the day.

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IMG_2210There were a number of things that had gone wrong for the Americans. The rifle platoons never got out of the town, contributing almost nothing to the battle. Had they hauled their way toward the forest in the middle of the board, pressure would been greater on one of the objectives. The restrictions on the reserves also hurt the Americans, with nearly half their force never getting a chance to get in the fight. The US Airborne were typically deadly in their assaulting enemy armor and ground troops and proved to be the one positive for the Allies. On the German side of the table, much of its large armor platoon, including the Tiger, was sidelined for much of the battle as they navigated the hedgerows and roads.

The game was a new experience for one of the German players who typically games in the wide-open spaces of the Northern Africa theater from earlier in the war. As in 1944, bocage played the role of a third unmovable enemy on the table. The bocage was frustrating for all players but this time sided more with the Germans in their breakthrough victory.

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Flames of War: La Fiere Causeway 1944 Scenario

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In the late evening of June 5th and pre-dawn hours of June 6th, 1944, a steady flow of Allied paratroopers began dropping throughout the French countryside to clear the inland way for the D-Day beach landings to come later that morning. Like elsewhere, scheduled US Airborne drops near Sainte-Mère-Église left paratroopers scattered around the countryside. To the southwest of the town’s target area, a contingent from the 82nd Airborne found itself near a quaint French farm compound and a small bridge over the Merderet River. Recognizing the river crossing as a key defensive line, the assembled paratroopers established a perimeter along the river. A few hours later, the US troops were met by a German Grenadier and armored battallion hoping to stall the Allied invaders from moving inland. The battle that erupted at the river would rage for three days until the German force withdrew in time for the arrival of US infantry and Sherman forces rolling in from Utah Beach on June 9th.

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The Flames of War website offers a basic scenario of the encounter at La Fiere Causeway suitable for 1500 point forces on either side. This past weekend a visitor to Metropolitan Wargamers and I had a go at the scenario with my US Airborne facing off against his Germans. As with the historical record, my force held closely to the scenario’s outline with two parachute rifle platoons with plenty of bazookas supported by a platoon of light machine guns, parachute engineers, a glider artillery platoon and M18 tank destroyers. On the German side of the table, my opponent lacked the primitive French tanks that historically fought at the battle. Instead, he filled his force with a number of Grenadier platoons mounted in half tracks backed by two small platoons of Panzer IVs and a Nebelwerfer rocket battery.

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As per the scenario rules, each of us chose half of our platoons to be held in off-table reserve. Beginning with the Germans, we alternated deploying our starting forces on the table. My American engineers took up position in the courtyard of the farm on my left flank, the machine guns lined the hedge on the other side of the bridge and a rifle platoon deployed on my far right flank. As expected, the Germans deployed a tank platoon at the road entry point and the rocket battery and a mounted Grenadier platoon in the field on their left flank.

IMG_2165With the Germans taking the first turn, the first Panzer IV platoon made way for the river crossing at the middle of the table while the half tracks rolled for the ford on the American right flank. Deployed in and around the farm buildings, the US engineers quickly laid down mines at the foot of the bridge and an Airborne platoon crossed the river to meet the approaching Grenadiers and the rocket battery beyond.

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IMG_2167With turn three, German tank and Grenadier reserves appeared on the table edge opposite the farm and pointed their way toward the French buildings and the nearby bridge. Four US bazookas bailed one Panzer in the clearing across  the river but three other Panzers made it across at the middle ford. US tank destroyer reserves came on the table and immediately poured machine gun fire into the half tracks across the river. The Grenadiers bailed from their transports and the half tracks raced to the rear while the Nebelwerfers failed to score effective shots in the hearty US Airborne troops.

IMG_2171With the Grenadiers on the run back to defend the rocket battery, the US tank destroyers turned their attention on the Panzers and quickly destroyed one while the others continued to push on unharmed due to the protection of their side Schurzen armor. At the farm, the approaching Panzer and Grenadier platoons exchanged fire with the engineers and riflemen defending behind the stone walls. Even with heavy casualties, the engineers repelled a direct assault by two Panzers as a fresh rifle platoon rushed to reinforce the farmyard strongpoint.

Alas, by the fifth turn the game was effectively over for the Americans as the late-arriving US howitzers once again failed to hit in one final volley against the Panzers rushing to seize the objective. The Americans had chased both Grenadier platoons from the field and destroyed a couple Panzers, but the Airborne focus on defending rather than seizing objectives allowed the Germans to take the table.

At the game’s outset, both of us shook our heads with the difficult mission ahead of us. The Airborne never effectively engaged in a close-quarters assault that might’ve taken out more of the tanks sooner on in the game, and artillery on both sides contributed nothing to the game. As with the last few FOW games I’ve played, the engagement at La Fiere once again pointed out the strength and tactical importance that infantry played in WWII. Keeping men moving and in the fight is key to victory, and this time around the German troops got the better of the day.