Although the main focus of my Kursk Kampaign History to Wargame exploration of the Battle of Kursk uses Trevor Bender’s Battle for Kursk: The Tigers are Burning, 1943 (RBM Studios, 2020) wargame, I am also looking at the more tactical wargame titles in my collection. As I read more of The Battle of Kursk by David Glantz and Jonathan House (University of Kansas Press, 1999) and Christopher Lawrences’s The Battle of Prokharovka (Stackpole Books, 2019) and reach their descriptions of the signature battle, my thoughts turn to more tactical-scale wargames and how they work to convey history.
Tactical Wargames for Kursk
|Blood & Thunder||GDW, 1993||Platoon||250m/ hex||~15 min|
|Panzer||GMT, 2012||Squad/Tank||100m/ hex||~5 min|
|Storms of Steel||Academy Games, 2017||Squad/Tank||~100m/ hex||~10 min|
From a more tactical perspective, in my readings this time I took in much more about the terrain of the battle. One “myth” of the battle I have in my mind is of wide open steppes and tank battles at range. The reality is a bit different. Take for instance this excerpt from Glantz as he discusses the terrain in front of Baksov’s Soviet 67th Guard’s Rifle Division 14-km sector:
To Baksov’s front the terrain sloped downward, gently on his right toward the main east-west rail line six kilometers distant and even more precipitously in the center on the left toward the villages of Butovo and Iamnoe and the Vorskla valley. The slightly tilted billard table approach on his right was marred by a ravine and associated dry marsh, which marked the course of the rivulet Berezovyi, less than a kilometer to the front. In the center clumps of trees and in the east the ground forward of the division’s defenses was heavily cut up and gouged by ravines and stream beds sloping southeast to the Vorskla and the village of Kazatskoe. Clearly the main routes into his positions ran northward along both sides of Butovo. The main German positions were invisible to the naked eye between four and six kilometers away, extending across the rail line from Loknia through Iamnoe to Katzatoe.Glantz, The Battle of Kursk, p. 72
This detailed terrain analysis is too in-depth for Battle for Kursk which looks to be 10’s of km per hex in scale. However, it certainly is applicable to tactical scenarios. This is a consideration I need to remember as I look at the tactical games.
Kursk was a Tank Battle
As I read both Glantz and Lawrence I am also struck by how much of the Battle of Kursk was not a tank battle. Sure, the signature event at Prokhorovka is a giant armored clash but that came days after the start of the campaign. Many of the battles were fought to get through the Soviet defensive belts and many of those actions were infantry-heavy fights supported by tanks and highly dependent on engineers. Airpower also had a role. Here is how Glantz relates an attack by the Grossdeutschland division on July 5 from the unit history:
The infantry left its positions and attacked, but there was something wrong with the fusiliers. The Panzer Regiment GD and the panther brigade were supposed to attack with them, however they had the misfortune to drive into a minefield which had escaped notice until then–and then even before reaching the bolshevik trenches! It was enough to make one sick. Soldiers and officers alike feared that the entire affair was going to pot. The tanks were stuck fast, some bogged down to the tops of their tracks, and to make matters worse the enemy was firing at them with antitank rifles, antitank guns, and artillery. Tremendous confusion breaks out. The fusiliers advance without the tanks–what can they do? The tanks do not follow. Scarcely does the enemy notice the precarious situation of the fusiliers when he launches a counterattack supported by numerous close support aircraft. The purely infantry companies of III Panzer-Fusilier Regiment GD, or the 11th, 12th, and 13th Companies, walked straight into ruin. Even the heavy company suffered 50 killed and wounded in a few hours. Pioneers were moved up immediately and they began clearing a path through the mine-infested terrain. Ten more hours had to pass before the first tanks and self-propelled guns got through and reached the infantry.Glantz, The Battle of Kursk, p. 96
Honestly, this sounds like a scenario I expect to find in Advanced Squad Leader (Multi-Man Publishing) or PanzerGrenadier (Avalanche Press), not Storms of Steel.
I decided to list all the scenarios I have onhand before I read about the actual battles. This way I could “be on the lookout” for the given battle and get a sense of how “historically accurate” the scenario may be or if it is more “representative;” i.e. possibly sacrificing realism for playability. As I reviewed my wargame holdings I was actually very surprised to see just how many scenarios I have that touch on the Battle of Kursk. Sure, with a title like Conflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel – Kursk, 1943 I expected that one to have scenarios but I was surprised at just how many I hold elsewhere. As a matter of fact, in addition to the 17 scenarios in Storms of Steel, I have a further 10 elsewhere.
That said, of the 27 Kursk-related scenarios in hand, only two (2) take place on the iconic day of July 12:
- Blood & Thunder Scenario 20: Armored Melee – Prokhorovka (south of Kursk). As the II SS Panzer Corps seems poised for a breakthrough, 5th Guards Tank Army is committed to throw it back, and the result is the largest tank melee of the war. In the center of the fight, at the gates of the key road junction of Prokhorovka, the spearhead of the SS Liebstandarte Adolf Hitler Division collides with the Soviet 170th and 181st Tank Brigades of the 18th Tank Corps.
- Panzer Expansion #2 Scenario 18: Beginning of the End: Kursk, 12 July 1943 – After rolling over the Soviet 6th Tank Corps, the 3rd Panzer Division moved into a defensive position on the western flank of the Grossdeutschland Panzergrenadier Division. At the same time, the Soviet 1st Tank and 6th Guards Armies were advancing to cut off the German forces advancing on Prokhorovka. At daybreak on 12 July, the Soviet 10th Tank Corps moved out against the 3rd Panzer Division’s positions in the Bereavka area. Throughout the day, the German forces were forced to fall back. Even after launching a series of counterattacks, they were not able to regain any of the lost ground. By the end of the day, the Soviet forces had advanced well over 14km, threatening to turn the flank of the entire XLVIII Panzer Corps.
Seeing how I was more familiar with Panzer than Blood & Thunder, I elected to play “Armored Melee” to experience the B&T system. I made this choice for several reason, amongst them the historical notes and sources cited. I also felt that the scenario layout of the map, set up 1×2 vertically with the road going up the middle, was more evocative of the battlefield. It also covers an area of 17 hexes x 42 hexes (just a little over 4 km x 10.5 km) which is about half the frontage of each of the three major attacks Lawrence discusses for this day (p. 345-347). I also felt the scale of Blood & Thunder, being platoon-level and 250m per hex, was better suited to portray the big battle.
Melee? What Melee?
According to the scenario set-up information, this engagement portrays an attack by advance elements of the Liebstandarte SS Adolph Hitler Division against the defending Soviet 170th and 181st Tank Brigades of the 18th Tank Corps starting around 1000 hours. The scenario points out this important part of the battle, “The intensity of the fighting is summed up in a single incident: one of the KVs of the Soviet 395th Tank Battalion, damaged and burning, rammed a Tiger tank at full speed, destroying both vehicles in the resulting explosion.”
Problem is I can’t find this event in either the Glantz or Lawrence book.
Glantz doesn’t go down to the battalion level, but reports that the 170th Tank Brigade on July 12, “lost its commander and as many as thirty of its sixty tanks” (p. 189). The types of tanks lost are not specified, nor is the loss of a KV-1 against a Tiger called out. Lawrence recounts the battles of the 170th Tank Brigade on pages 314-319 and notes that by noon (Moscow time) it, “had lost 60% of its tanks, its brigade commander had burned to death in his tank, and one battalion commander was mortally wounded” (p. 316). Lawrence notes the 170th Tank Brigade consisted of T-34 and T-70 tanks; no KV-1s were assigned to it. It was not until later in the day that battles against Tiger tanks were fought, and then it was elements of the 181st Tank Brigade against Tigers likely from the Totenkopf SS Panzer Regiment. Lawrence does point to data that the Adolph Hitler SS Division was down one (1) Panzer VI (Tiger) by July 13 (p. 341), but also shows that the only KV-1s on the battlefield, a single track in the XXIX Tank Corps and another single track in the 1529th Heavy SP Artillery Regiment, both were operational at the end of July 12 (p. 342).
All of this made me question the historical scenarios in Blood & Thunder. Well, at first. I then realized that Blood & Thunder was published in 1993 meaning most, if not all, the research predated the fall of the Berlin Wall. Sure enough, the sources cited for the scenario range from 1966 to 1987 meaning they were part of the German mythology of the Battle of Kursk. What I mean is this scenario reflects the Battle of Kursk as the Germans portrayed it after the war in their memoirs. Chadwick’s “Armored Melee” scenario does not benefit from the opening of the Russian archives and the years of subsequent research that Glantz and Lawrence take advantage of.
This is Not the Battle You Are Looking For
Does that make “Armored Melee,” or any of the other scenarios about the Battle of Kursk, less valuable in my eyes? No, I don’t think less of “Armored Melee” or any of the other scenarios just because they are not “historically accurate.” On the contrary, I enjoy the many scenarios because they create interesting challenges that force decisions. Take for instance the earliest scenario from July 4, the day before the Battle of Kursk:
- Conflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel Mission 1: The Courier’s Satchel – Shortly before Operation Citadel, a Soviet probe intercepts a courier carrying a satchel with German deployment orders. An elite platoon of Panzer Grenadiers is immediately dispatched to retrieve the satchel. The provincial Soviet commander orders the documents delivered to an Intelligence Officer at headquarters for translation. With the local front a beehive of activity on both sides, getting the satchel to headquarters is easier said than done–Panzer Grenadiers notwithstanding.
I can’t point to a specific passage in Glantz or Lawrence that this scenario is based on, but both authors discuss the capture of several German soldiers by the Soviets on the eve of the battle making this scenario at the least “inspired by actual events.”
The same “based on a true story” approach to scenario design is in Panzer (GMT Games):
- Panzer Playbook Scenario 8 – Assault: Kursk, July 1943 – The 4th Panzer Division, as part of the General Walter Model’s 9th Army’s XLVII Panzer Corps, met the Soviet 2nd Tank Army headlong on the Northern Kursk Salient. Along with the 2nd and 4th Panzer Divisions, these panzer divisions formed the middle prong of the army’s central strike force.
This scenario appears to be based on events of the 4th Panzer Division between July 7-8. I say “appears” since using Glantz it is hard to determine the ground truth. The 109th Tank Brigade in the scenario set up does not appear in the text of The Battle of Kursk but the unit is shown on the map on page 116 placed opposite the German 6th Infantry Division to the east of 4th Panzer Division (with 2nd Panzer Division between them). The end result is a scenario that is not historically precise, but still quite plausible.
Shall We Play a Game?
Between older sources clashing with revised history and a scenario design philosophy that emphasizes interesting situations over reality, one could make the argument that the tactical scenarios in many games covering the Battle of Kursk are useless. Well, if your view of history in wargaing is strictly historical than yes, you will be disappointed. I take a different perspective; though many scenarios are not strictly historical they cover interesting and challenging situations that place you, the player, in a position of making decisions similar to yet not identical with those commanders present on the battlefield in 1943 faced. Indeed, I argue that these scenarios show the power of wargaming which don’t need to recreate reality to deliver a lesson, just recreate the atmosphere of the time. Playing is the best way of learning, and playing all these scenarios will teach much of the times than a lockstep historical scenario can.
You can read a book for the specifics of history, but play the wargames to experience the times yourself.
Feature image “Panther with its turret blown Battle of Prokharovka” via reddit