The ultimately unsuccessful week-long Operation Market Garden commenced on September 17, 1944 with an Allied push toward Germany. The ground “Market” portion of the campaign saw the British Guards Armoured Division taking point on the push into the Low Countries.
On the second day of the operation, a column of the Guards Armoured had rolled to the southern outskirts of Aalst, a Belgian town occupied by German forces since 1940. Led by Col. Joe Vandeleur, the division’s tanks encountered the remnants of German troops and guns which were dug in but heavily-damaged by the previous day’s Allied air bombings and artillery barrages. For the Germans, Aalst was a line in the sand protecting the Allied advance northeast to Antwerp and the Netherlands beyond. For the Allies, keeping the long column of armour moving was key to reinforcing the Allied airborne troops already engaged with German forces along several bridges.
This past weekend at Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY we ran the Aalst scenario for Flames of War with 2000-point forces on either side of the table. We pulled our British and German lists from the Market Garden and Bridge By Bridge books. As a jumping off point for the game’s outline, we referenced an Aaalst scenario originally designed for Battlefront. We planned a 10-turn game with points scored for destroyed platoons and an immediate end to the game when the British rolled a platoon off the German-defended north end of the table.
German set-up at Aalst
As per the actual situation at Aalst in 1944, the Germans began setting up with half their force heavily dug in just north of the town’s center. Deadly 8.8 cm Flak guns were positioned on roads to their right and left flanks, and 7.5 cm PaK 40 anti-tank guns stood closer to town. Infantry and heavy machine gun platoons hunkered down in the fields just outside of town, and a single Jagdpanther idled nearby. Expecting both ground and possible air forces, the German guns were well-prepared for the arriving British.
German 88’s dug in at the northeast and northwest ends of town
British set-up at Aalst
The British laid out their 8-gun 25 pdr battery at the rear of the table and rolled on two platoons from the Guards with Joe Vandeleur attached. Spotters for the artillery were deployed in Shermans to the right and left hoping to provide eyes across the entire table for. Towed 6 pdr anti-tank guns, infantry, machine gunners and additional tanks lay in reserve off-table to follow the initial wave of armour. The plan was to use Vandeleur’s special rules to rush tanks to the center of the table, saturate the Germans with artillery fire and pave the way from additional supporting platoons.
Vandeleur leads the Guards into position behind the town
German infantry and Pagdpanther make for the church at the center of Aalst
In the first two turns, the Guards quickly rolled up to take position behind the town to the south with their Vickers machine gun platoon riding on the tanks. The British artillery spotter hopped from his Sherman tank and ran for back door of a building. The Germans made way to the north of town with infantry looking to occupy the church at Aalst with a lone Jagdpanther in support.
A Firefly lays waste to the approaching Jagdpanther with its first shot
The Guards take heavy fire and two Shermans and a Firefly sit in flames
Fire opened up in the next two turns with a well-positioned Firefly scoring a kill on the nearing Jagdpanther. Returning fire, German 88s destroyed the Firefly and PaK 40s bailed and subsequently wrecked two other Shermans. Machine gunners made their saves, jumped off their tanks and made way for cover in a nearby building at the town’s intersection. Meanwhile, British artillery lobbed a volley over the town hoping to slow down the German infantry and machine guns looking to take hold of the town’s buildings. The barrage resulted in a destroyed PaK 40 just to the north of the church, but the German infantry pressed on to take up positions in the church.
British infantry move to assault the church as reserve armor rolls to the town center
With British infantry reserves moved at the double to the town and then moved in a subsequent turn to assault the church. At the same time, a reinforcing Guards tank platoon raced to the town center. Shots from the Shermans failed to destroy nearby PaK 40s but fire from the Vickers guns in a nearby building pinned the Germans in the church ahead of the assault. Despite all the British fire lighting up the center of town, the assault failed and the British infantry fell back to the other side of the street.
German armored reserves arrive
With the British stalled at the crossroads in Aalst, German reserves moved onto the table. A Stug platoon, Wirbelwinds and a fresh Jagdpanther began closing in from the northwest of town, drawing fire from the British battery looking to slow their advance. Volleys from the 25-pound guns blew up an 88 and a PaK 40, but the mass of German hardware kept rolling forward.
British command tanks move to engage the Germans
A swarm of German armor and troops push forward under British artillery fire
A Panzerfaust lights up a British command tank
Hoping for a hard push of combined arms on the German right, British command tanks followed by two platoons of infantry pressed forward from a nearby woods. The British tankies proved to be tough, surviving a turn of fire from nearby Stugs and an attempted infantry assault with Panzerfaust-wielding infantry as British guns continued to range in and rain shells on the Germans to no effect.
The lone surviving command British tank awaits its fate from the German onslought
Back at the center of town, the last tank platoon took fire from the 88s, PaK 40s and a Panzerfaust in the church steeple and was destroyed. The one lone command tank on the western outskirts of town was surrounded and destroyed by combined tank and artillery fire. With only the remnants two rifle platoons and the Vickers left spread through the town, the game was lost for the British. As the sun set in the west, Aalst remained in Axis hands.
In our discussion after, the British artillery had only been effective only about 50% of the time and only eliminated a few units throughout the game. Too many British tanks burned too quickly against overwhelming crossfire from German guns, and reinforcing British infantry could never make headway beyond Aalst’s crossroads. More British tank platoons with Fireflies might have gone a long way toward at least pushing through the town.
Fortunately for the people of Aalst, the engagement during Market Garden resulted in the liberation of the town by the British. Pictures from the victory show a very different outcome from our game with smiling faces all around. The very nature of wargaming sometimes just makes things go a different way, and this past weekend the dice rolled against the tide of history with a victory for the Germans at Aaalst.