To start off a new year of wargaming I pulled out my favorite air combat wargame series, Wing Leader by Lee Brimmicombe-Wood and published by GMT Games. I decided to do more than a one-off scenario and went back to the first campaign published, Drive on Kiev, in Wing Leader: Blitz, 1939-1942 – Wing Leader Expansion Nr. 1 (GMT Games, 2018). Drive on Kiev simulates the first three weeks of Operation Barbarossa and the operations of Fliegerkorps V. Each Campaign Game Turn represents three or four days. Each Campaign will result in at least six Raids with the Germans attacking and the possibility of up to four Soviet Raids if they choose to exercise the option.
As is well documented, the early days of Operation Barbarossa were very, very bad for the Red Air Force:
By the afternoon [22nd June] fresh masses of aircraft, summoned with desperate urgency from the flying fields of central Russia, began to appear over the battlefield, though “It was infanticide, they were floundering in tactically impossible formations.” By the time Stalin’s restrictions against sorties over German territory had been lifted, the Russian bomber force (which had largely escaped the first Luftwaffe strike, owning to its bases being farther from the frontier) took off obediently in accordance with an already outdated operational plan. Over 500 were shot down. On 23rd June, Lieutenant General Kopets, commander of the bomber group, committed suicide, and within a week General Rychagov, the commander of aviation on the northwestern front, was under sentence of death for “treasonable activity” (that is to say, having been defeated). In the first two days the Russians lost over 2,000 aircraft—a casualty rate without precedent. The (numerically) strongest air force in the world had been virtually eliminated in 48 hours.Alan Clark, Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict 1941-45 (New York: Quill, 1965), pp. 49-50
How can we play the Drive on Kiev campaign if one side isn’t even present? Further historical study tells us that the Red Air Force, though severely mauled, was not totally beaten. The Red Air Force did resist, and the Drive on Kiev campaign shows us an example of that resistance. That said, designer Lee Brimmicombe-Wood is actually up-front in telling players that while Drive on Kiev is framed in the opening days of Operation Barbarossa, his real goal is to teach about the challenges of sortie generation in an extended campaign:
Air forces tend to rot away during operations. When demand for air support is high, routine maintenance is deferred, eventually taking aircraft out of service. Accidents rise and become the largest source of losses, while battle casualties drain strength. Eventually, an air force can do no more than maintain a low level of activity and needs to be withdrawn and rebuilt. This campaign depicts how Fliegerkorps V, despite ideal operating conditions, exhausted itself during the invasion.“Sortie Generation,” Wing Leader: Blitz, p. 3
Mr. Brimmicombe-Wood doubles down on his depiction by bending history, especially as it pertains to Soviet planning:
In the game the Soviets get the ability to predict German activity and react accordingly. This is not historical. This is a handicap feature designed to allow the Soviet player to optimise his response to the Germans. The effect we wish to create is that of an increasingly exhausted German force facing a seemingly endless supply of Soviet flyers.“Soviet Planning,” Wing Leader: Blitz, p. 3
Does knowing that the Drive on Kiev campaign in Wing Leader: Blitz is not strictly historical make it less interesting to play? I have to say no. Understanding that the German side is playing a game of attrition against a determined Soviet opposition actually makes the game very interesting and drives home the importance of campaign decisions regarding choosing targets and allocating for attack and defense. One could argue that the game is more interesting under these “artificial” conditions than in would be otherwise. While the operational situation may have some artificiality, at the tactical level the game shines with set up and scenario campaign special rules:
- Only the Germans have a Ground Controlled Intercept (GCI) net (advantage Germans on defense)
- Only the Germans have radios (advantage Germans)
- German fighters use loose doctrine; Soviet fighters use Rigid (advantage Germans)
- German fighters have tactical flexibility (advantage Germans)
- To reflect Soviet desperation they have a Determination modifier in Cohesion Rolls (advantage Soviets)
- Soviets can use ramming attacks—Taran (advantage Soviets?)
- German fighters can use “Hunting from Cloud” (advantage Germans).
While tactically it may appear that the Germans have many advantages, the scenario set up also creates many Soviet challenges that, if a player is able to face and overcome, can create a very enjoyable experience. Facing those challenges and figuring out how to win (or at least how to lose the least) is the real charm of Wing Leader. Many aerial combat games tend to focus on the “nuts and bolts” of a dogfight, but Wing Leader approaches each battle at something more akin to a grand tactical perspective. Campaign Games like Drive on Kiev take that viewpoint up a level into operational planning. Taken together, it is yet another example of the versatility of Lee Brimmicombe-Wood’s design and another reason Wing Leader is one of my favorite wargames.