Lombardy Publishing ran a Kickstarter in 2022 that brought several books by Christer Bergstrom to the shores of America. Mr. Bergstrom is an author from Sweden who has published over 40 books on World War II. His primary focus seems to be on Eastern Front air warfare (see History to Wargame 23-1 “Air War Over the Eastern Front through Black Cross-Red Star (Vaktel Books) & Wings of the Motherland (Clash of Arms, 2019)) but I also took delivery of two volumes of Stalingrad: New Perspectives on an Epic Battle.
The two-volume set of Stalingrad: New Perspectives of an Epic Battle supplement the Black Cross-Red Star series by Bergstrom. Volume 1: The Doomed City (Vaktel Books, 2022) actually goes back to January 1942 and the start of Operation Blue / Case Blue / Fall Blau, the German offensive for summer 1942 on the Eastern Front. Volume 1 traces the development of Fall Blau and how the offensive transpired that summer. Volume 1 ends on 12 September 1942 with German generals Paulus and van Weichs meeting with Hitler to discuss solutions to the strategic situation that day. Volume 2: The City of Death (Vakltel Books, 2022) picks up from that meeting in September 1942 and goes through to the final surrender of Paulus on 3 February 1943.
GMT Games describes the wargame Stalingrad ’42: Southern Russia, June-December, 1942 (designer Mark Simonitch, GMT Games, 2019) as:
Stalingrad ’42 is a division-level game on the Axis 1942 summer offensive towards Stalingrad and the Caucasus. This epic 6-month struggle saw the Axis armies reach the Volga and the Caucasus Mountains. But Soviet resistance stiffened and final victory eluded the German army at Stalingrad and in the Caucasus. The ensuing November Soviet offensive trapped the Wehrmacht’s largest army (the 6th) at Stalingrad and marked the beginning of the end for the Axis fortunes in WW2.Stalingrad ’42, back-of-the-box blurb
The scale of Stalingrad ’42 is each turn represents 1-4 days and each hex is 10 miles. The game also uses Simonitch’s ZoC Bond System. Here is how ZoC Bond is described on BoardGameGeek:
The ZOC Bond system created by Mark Simonitch and present in a series of his games combines traditional “zone of control” (ZOC) with a “bond” (Bond) extending along the hex spines. Units generate a ZOC in the six hexes around them that forces enemy units to stop when they enter; however, the Bond(s) also generate an impassible ZOC Bond between units with only one hex between them, barring certain terrain features. The ZOC Bond not only stops movement, but also prevent retreats and supply from reaching units on the other side of an enemy ZOC Bond.Series: ZOC Bond System
There are four scenarios published in Stalingrad ’42:
- A 3-map campaign game (36 turns) covering June-December ’42
- ‘Case Blue’ using 1-map and covering June-July (8 turns)
- ‘Battle of the Caucasus’ using 1-map and covering August-November (18 turns)
- ‘Operation Uranus’ using 2-maps and covering November-December (9 turns).
I decided to use the ‘Case Blue’ scenario in the wargame Stalingrad ’42 to compare it to Bergstrom’s book Stalingrad: New Perspectives on an Epic Battle – Volume 1: The Doomed City. This will allow me to explore the build up to Case Blue though Stalingrad ’42 turn 8 which technically ends on 28 July 1942. The preparation and execution fo Case Blue during this time is covered by Bergstrom in Chapters 1-7. Those chapters, plus several appendixes from both Volume 1 and Volume 2 will be compared with Stalingrad ’42.
Bergstrom’s New Perspectives
In some ways it seems incredible to believe but 2022 was the 80th anniversary of the launching of the Case Blue offensive. Given the many years that have passed, just how many “new perspectives” can there really be?
In my reading of Bergstrom, I see three major themes come through most strongly in these books. First, German-based accounts of the campaign, especially those that rely on Halder or von Manstein’s writings, are suspect and leads in turn to the second theme that Soviet retreats in the early days of Case Blue were not “clever” actions. A third theme is that the role of Soviet airpower is under-appreciated. There is also the issue of railroads, not a true theme but a topic Bergstrom touches on lightly but one that becomes very relevant when discussing Stalingrad ’42.
Halder, von Manstein, & Soviet ‘Memory’
Christer Bergstrom is no fan of Generaloberst Franz Halder, the Chief of Staff of the German Army High Command (OKH) nor Erich von Manstein who commanded Heeresgruppe Don in the final stages of the Battle of Stalingrad. Bergstrom lays out his condemnation of the writings by both men in “Appendix VI: The Use of Franz Halder’s ‘Diary’ as a Historical Source” in Volume 1 and “Part IV: The Battle in Reality and in Writing History” in Volume 2. Of the two, the later provides perhaps the better summation of Bergstrom’s argument:
Every great and decisive military campaign in history is shrouded in myth, legend, and self-serving distortions of the facts, but only rarely have they had such a massive and decisive impact as concerning the German Summer Offensive in 1942 and the Battle of Stalingrad. This phenomenon is particularly evident in depictions in the Western world, for very special reasons. The myths and legends that surround this sequence in history simply reflects the scope of the German defeat.Volume 2, p. 281
Bergstrom goes on to discuss problems with the “diaries” of Franz Halder which Bergstrom argues, “were extensively rewritten by Halder himself after the war, with a tendency towards exculpating himself in the Nuremberg trials, and also to shift all blame for the failures in World War II onto Hitler.” (Volume 2, 281). With regards to von Manstein, Bergstrom cites The Myth of the Eastern Front by Ronald Smelser and Edward J. Davies (Cambridge University Press, 2008) where they describe von Manstein as, “a commanding military presence raised to the cult level, a man much honored by postwar historiography which he, second only to Franz Halder, influenced decisively.” (Volume 2, 281). They go on to write:
All the strategic and operational mistakes of the war in the East were laid at Hitler’s door; Hitler’s amateurishness contrasted at every point with the professionalism of the soldiers. Hitlers wahnsinn (lunacy) contrasted with the simple patriotism of the army. Hitler’s complete immorality contrasted with the traditional moral code of the officer.”Cited in Volume 2, pp. 281-282
As much as Bergstrom condemns using Halder and von Manstein as sources, he also takes issue with Soviet accounts. “Soviet history writing also had a certain tendency to rectify some of the mistakes on the Soviet side, but not to the same degree as the German revisionists, for a quite natural reason: The Soviets won the war.” (Volume 2, p. 282). That said, Bergstrom does take exception to one part of the official history that concerns the early days of Fall Blau:
However, one exculpation by Soviet history writing has found its way into even Western history writing, and that is concerning Operation “Blue,” the German offensive to River Don in June-July 1942. According to the official Soviet history, the Red Army cleverly withdrew in front of the German forces in June-July 1942, and thus avoided getting encircled. As we have seen in Volume 1, this is a completely incorrect description; local, tactical retreats forced upon the Soviets by the Germans have been described as pre-planned strategic regroupings.Volume 2, p. 282
Here Bergstrom refers to points he makes in Volume 1 when discussing the early days of Fall Blau:
Here it would be appropriate to deal with one of the misconceptions of the Soviet tactics against Operation “Blue.” It is often said that the Red Army used a more flexible tactic in June-July 1942 than one year previously, by folding back and making the German panzer strikes become blows without landing on a target. However, there was no such change in tactic on the Soviet side during the battle between rivers Donets and Don. Indeed, on the night of July 1/2, the Stavka gave permission to pull back the Southwestern Front’s Twenty-first and the Byansk Front’s Fortieth armies behind the Don. This decision has been praised by many scholars after the war. However, in reality the order to withdraw was not a “general tactic,” but was issued in panic for a specific sector, and also came too late; pure arithmetics should have showed the Soviet command that the Germans would be able to break through an initiate a pincer operation.Volume 1, pp. 90-91
Bergstrom follows up on this theme with a discussion of Soviet retreats ordered on 6 and 7 July:
After the war, Soviet history writing has exaggerated the limited retreat orders on July 6/7 to withdraw the Southwestern Front’s Twenty-first and the Bryansk Front’s Fortieth armies from the Donets to the eastern side of the Don River on July 1/2, and to pull back the Twenty-eighth Army from its positions west of Valuyki, 100 km ENE of Kharkov, to Novaya Kalitva on the Don, 130 km farther to the east, into an image of a new tactic with a general retreat in order to avoid the mistakes of the summer of 1941. Although this has influenced history writing in the West, it holds no truth. (An extreme version of the “strategic retreat version” was presented by Luftwaffe General Fritz Morzik, who wrote: “In a carefully planned, brilliant move, Russian leaders deliberately enticed the German forces into the area between Rostov and Kharkov as far as the Volga River.”) The instructions to the Twenty-eighth Army to fall back were only local in nature and forced upon the Soviets by the advances made by their opponents, as with the retreat by the Twenty-first and Fortieth armies.Volume 1, pp. 103-104
To be fair, I am not sure just how much of a “new perspective” from Bergstrom this claim really is. Reading Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad – The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943 (Viking Books, 2005) about this same period one finds:
They [German officers] did not know if the enemy was preparing reserve armies for a surprise counter-attack, or planning to withdraw into the hinterland, extending their supply lines further across vast regions with poor communications…This idea of the cunning Russian trap was perpetuated and enhanced by many survivors and German historians of the Cold War period, who ignored the rather obvious fact that Stalin’s greatest mistake since the invasion had been to refuse to let his forces retreat. The Red Army’s starting to withdraw ahead of the Germans in July 1942 was not part of a devilish plan. Quite simply, Stalin had at last accepted the wisdom of allowing commanders to evade encirclement.Beevor, p. 73
Bergstrom’s second “new” perspective is the role of Soviet airpower during the German offensive. To be clear, Bergstrom does not contest the common perceptions that the Germans had air superiority, but that the Soviet air force made a greater contribution to the defense than it is commonly credited with.
Although Bergstrom goes into much more depth in his Black Cross-Red Star series of books, in Stalingrad: New Perspectives… he compares the two air forces on the eve of Case Blue. Some of the key points Bergstrom makes are:
- “Meanwhile, in the air, it was the Soviets who narrowed the technical gap…The [Soviet] fighter units had been largely re-equipped with modern LaGG-3, Yak-1, and Yak-7B monoplanes, with some receiving American Curtiss P-40s and British Hurricanes. Although inferior to the Luftwaffe standard fighter Messerschmitt Bf 109 F, it still signified a great technological leap forward.” (Volume 1, pp. 71-72)
- “Ironically, these more modern fighters resulted in increasing losses in Soviet air units during the initial period…while the undoubtably most skillful combat pilots in the European war zone in 1942 were the Germans on the Eastern Front, there was not other air force of World War II with such inadequately prepared aviators as the VVS, the Soviet Air Force, in 1942.” (Volume 1, p. 72)
Once the offensive kicked off, Bergstrom talks of the contribution of German airpower to initial success. However, the points out, “Air support was a key to the German success, but of even greater importance was the poor performance of the Soviet command.” (Volume 1, p. 84). On 30 June, Bergstrom writes of, “A hard air battle took place over Staryy Oskol…Both sides probably suffered about equally in the air, which is remarkable for the Eastern Front at this early stage.” (Volume 1, pp. 89-90). He goes on to acknowledge, “But the German superiority in the air became more and more accentuated.” (Volume 1, p. 90).
Yet, while Bergstrom tells us about that accentuated German air superiority, he also hints at how it was breaking down, even in the timeframe of the Case Blue scenario in Stalingrad ’42. An example can be seen in these mid-July actions:
At the same time, the Soviet air force made a surprising comeback. New aviation units arrived from all parts of the USSR to bolster 8 VA [Air Army]. Its bomber and Shturmovik crews were called on to strike against the advancing German troops day and night. 3. Panzer-Division’s report for July 12 read: “The enemy continuously committed his air force. The situation grew worse for the mechanized infantry as a result of these low-level attacks, reaching a climax late in the afternoon.”
On July 13, the Division “Grossdeutschland” was being refueled and about to resume its march to the south when the men of this unit received a note from their commanders to “expect heavy enemy air activity.” The Germans could simply not understand how the Soviets could maintain such air activity in the face of the huge losses they had sustained according to German estimations. However, the German estimations on the harm they were doing to the VVS [Soviet Air Force] were substantially exaggerated. Thus, when SchG 1 on July 13 claimed the destruction of 20 Soviet planes during an attack against the airfield at Kamensk, Soviet records show that no more than one Pe-2 and a Su-2 of 270 BAD were in fact knocked out.Volume 1, pp. 110-111
While Bergstrom does not make railroads the subject of a “new perspective,” he does touch on the subject lightly and in doing so allows us to connect another part of his books to the wargame Stalingrad ’42. By mid-July, just a few turns before the end of the Case Blue scenario in Stalingrad ’42, the issue of rail supply was becoming acute. Bergstrom quotes a major in the general staff of the German Intelligence Department for the East who wrote:
When the German armies reached the Don, a distance of 2,500 km separated them from the German border in the Brest region. Since there were almost no paved roads in Russia, the supply was carried out by railroads ending in Kharkov and Stalino [today’s Donetsk]; further there was one railway through Rostov. These roads, mostly single-track, were very efficiently operated by the Russians (those who claim otherwise are mistaken); they had to be changed from wide-gauge (1.51 m) to a normal one (1.43 m), since hardly any undamaged rolling stock fell into our hands. In addition, the imperial railways were unable to allocate the necessary number of people and material for us to ensure the same efficient operation of the railways as under the Russians. As a result, the capacity of these railways did not exceed 50% of the capacity that they had when they were in Russian hands.Volume 1, p. 109
Perspectives in Stalingrad ’42
Can Stalingrad ’42 depict these new perspectives? For our first example, let’s look at a battle near Voronezh on the night of 1 July. Through this battle we will see the impact of both airpower and retreat in Stalingrad ’42:
Intense air attacks destroyed 23 of 17th Tank Corps’ T-34 tanks on July 1, forcing one of its brigades to pull back. The Division “Grossdeutschland” immediately took advantage of the gap in the Soviet lines and surged forward to seize to the villages of Kulevka on the main road between Kursk and Voronezh, 100 km east of its jump-off positions and with just 80 km remaining to the later place. Thus, the 17th Tank Corps was cut in half and lost contact with the 4th Tank Corps.Volume 1, p. 90
This combat can be simply recreated in Stalingrad ’42 by pitting the German GD Mechanized Infantry Division (7*-8(Red)-6) against the Soviet 17th Tank Corps (7*-5-5) and giving the Germans the VII FK [VII Fliegerkorps] air support counter. By the combat rules (10.0):
- Attack vs. Defense is 7 vs. 5 for 1:1 odds
- German tank shift (9.3) is cancelled by the Soviet tank shift (neither side has Elite tank shift)
- German air support shifts the Combat Results Table (CRT) one column to the right making the attack at 2:1 odds.
From the description of the battle, it appears that the GD Division suffered no real losses while 17th Tank Corps lost a brigade. Using the combat results for a 2:1 attack, it appears the Germans “rolled” a 6 (D1/Adv 3) which inflicts:
- A step loss on the Soviets (10.1, 10.2)
- Forces a defender retreat and disrupts the unit (12.0 Retreat and 13.0 Disruption & Recovery)
- Allows the GD Division to advance up to three hexes (14.0 Advance After Combat).
Of note, at this point in the game the Soviet player CANNOT use the Determined Defense (11.0) rule, another feature of Mark Simonitch’s ZoC-Bond series of games. A successful Determined Defense allows the defender to cancel the Retreat, the Disruption, and the attacker’s Advance After Combat from the D1 result above. The no-use restriction is specified in rule 11.1.2)Not One Step Back! as only NKVD units can use Determined Defense before turn 8.
In the “Design Notes” of Stalingrad ’42, there is a discussion of the Full Retreat rule (see 13.3 Effects of Full Retreat). In a change from previous ZoC-Bond series games, units in Full Retreat may move their full Movement Allowance AND use Extended Movement. The justification, found the the Design Note, is:
During the Summer of 1942 the Soviets were able to retreat fast enough that the Germans failed to pocket a large number of Soviet troops. To make that possible in the game, I added a rule to the Full Retreat section that allows a unit that voluntarily goes into Full Retreat, and is adjacent to an enemy unit, to ignore the +2 MPs [Movement Points] to exit that first EZOC [Enemy Zone of Control]. It is not a “get out of jail free” rule, but it may be enough to save a few units.Stalingrad ’42 Playbook, p. 17
This is a good point to discuss the ZoC Bond rule in Stalingrad ’42. The rule for ZOC Bond is specified in 7.0 with the effects listed in 7.2:
- Units may neither enter an enemy Hex bond nor cross an enemy Hexside Bond during the Movement Phase.
- Units forced to Retreat into an enemy Hex Bod or across an enemy Hexside Bond are eliminated.
- Units may not Advance After Combat into an enemy Hex Bond or across an enemy Hexside Bond, unless they are entering the defender’s vacated hex.
- Supply can never be traced into an enemy Hex Bond or across an enemy Hexside Bond.
A practical impact of the ZoC Bond rules of Stalingrad ’42 is that it encourages keeping “front lines” of units. Intentional or not, the ZoC Bond rule, combined with the Full Retreat rules adjustments, actually encourages players to execute “clever withdrawals” in order to preserve ZoC Bonds. Thus, what many historians describe as “pre-planned strategic regroupings” and Bergstrom describes as, “local, tactical retreats forced upon the Soviets by the Germans” in Stalingrad ’42 are ZoC Bond necessities. To paraphrase Beevor from above: ‘Zoc-Bond accepted the wisdom of allowing commanders to evade encirclement.’
No there Soviet Air
While Stalingrad ’42 appears to be a fair reflection of the impact of German airpower and Soviet retreats, how does it address Bergstrom’s contention that the Soviet air force was making a comeback? Alas, we don’t find out because in Stalingrad ’42 only the German side has air support:
Only the Axis player has Air Units. The number of available Air Units received each turn is determined by the Weather. Each Axis Initial Phase all his available Air Units are returned to their Holding Box and flipped to their Ready side. Unavailable Air Units are set aside.(9.3.1) Availability
Rule (9.3.7) German Air Superiority only doubles down on the no-Soviet Air Force presence in the game model by granting the Germans additional combat benefits from air units:
Due to German Air Superiority, German Air Units placed in the Axis Combat Phase remain with the units supported and provide the following benefits:
A. BREAKTHROUGH SUPPORT:…
B. AIR DEFENSE…(9.3.7) German Air Superiority
It is important to note the role of railroads in Stalingrad ’42. Like many “game engine” designs, each entry in the series uses a common set of rules. For Stalingrad ’42 the most important core rules are ZoC-Bond and Determined Defense. Each game in the series, however, can have special rules to reflect certain unique conditions to that campaign. In Stalingrad ’42 one cannot exaggerate the importance of rule 17.0 Railheads and Railroad Repair.
In Stalingrad ’42, a Connecting Rail Hex (see 17.4) is one that is connected to a Supply Source (see 16.2). Though not specifically called out in 16.3 Line of Supply, the inference from 17.3 is that a railroad can be used to trace a Line of Supply (LOS) for units. Given the dearth of roads in Russia, using a railroad for supply becomes critical. The catch in Stalingrad ’42 is that all rail hexes that lie to the east of the June 28th start line must be repaired before the German player can use them (see 17.1 and the major quoted above). The progress of the German repairs is marked by using Railhead Markers (17.2.1). During the Axis Supply Phase the German player may move up to four Railhead markers forward up to two hexes each within certain conditions defined in 17.2.1. For their part, the Soviets cannot destroy rail lines, but they can “push back” or “stall” the Germans progress as defined in 17.3.
Thus, rule 17.0 Railheads & Railroad Repair, which only takes up one column of a the 32-page rule book for Stalingrad ’42, defines a major portion of the strategy the German and Soviet players must deal with in any given scenario. A headlong German advance will quickly outrun supply (as historically happened). The German player must decide where Railheads will be advanced which not only support future operations, but can also signal their opponent where those future operations may occur. While the Soviets may never destroy the advancing rail, they can disrupt the LOS and therefore possibly create a local advantage or counteroffensive opportunity. Rule 17.0 is a simple rule with major strategic impact to players.
Halder, von Manstein…and Hitler
How does Stalingrad ’42 help to understand Bergstrom’s arguments regarding Halder, von Manstein, and the lunacy of Hitler? To be honest, not much. This is not because Stalingrad ’42 avoids the issue, but because the scale of the game is actually not very suitable for exploring this problem.
While some historians claim it was lunacy on the part of Hitler to keep pursuing the war in 1942, the real accusations of lunacy derive from claims of Hitler’s incompetence and interference in battlefield matters. On one level the players in Stalingrad ’42 are insulated with dealing with this interference as they don’t get visited by Hitler or summoned to headquarters to explain their actions.
Stalingrad ’42 is a wargame that depicts a campaign at the operational level. More exact, it is a game where players are commanders of armies in the field who must exercise ‘operational art’ where they marry strategy and tactics together in order to achieve campaign objectives. Those objectives, the classic ‘Commander’s Intent,’ are not defined by the players. If Stalingrad ’42 was a role-playing game, the player characters would be the German and Soviet military commanders and each would be working for a non-player character patron named Hitler and Stalin respectively. Of those two patrons, the one with the most impact on the game is Hitler.
There is a portion of the Stalingrad ’42 game model that does take into account the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, interference of both Hitler and Stalin but it is beyond the player’s control. The influence of Hitler (and indirectly Stalin) on the campaign of Stalingrad ’42 is seen in the victory conditions defined in 24.0 Victory Points and Automatic Victory. As laid out in 24.1.1, only the German player earns victory points which are awarded for the capture of objectives and exiting units off the East map edge. Rule 24.2 Automatic Victory places pressure on both players because if the Germans exceed the benchmark score by six or more points they automatically win. Conversely, if the Soviets hold the Germans to six or more points below the benchmark, then the Soviets automatically win. The victory conditions—and timeline—defined by Hitler defines the players strategy for the campaign.
In the Stalingrad ’42 Design Notes the designer claims that the distribution of the VP hexes allows any strategy the German player wants to use:
I distributed the VPs all across the map so the Soviet player if forced to defend against all threats and the Axis player is free to pursue any kind of strategy he wishes. There are 49 VPs on the map, 50 if you count Mt. Elbrus. The Axis player only needs to have 21 of them at the end of the game. Since the 6 VP around Stalingrad may be easier to get than the 7 VPs around Grozny, there is an incentive to split your forces and send some into the Caucasus and some towards Stalingrad.Stalingrad ’42 Playbook, p. 18
While the players in Stalingrad ’42 may not be receiving “direction” from Hitler or Stalin the distribution of victory points across the map may allow determine when and where you focus you efforts; that is, as long as the reinforcement schedule allows you…
In Stalingrad ’42 the reinforcement schedule is set in advance. Units will arrive in—and depart—the theater as dictated by the schedule. Those arrivals and departure turns are based on historical events and the direction of Hitler and Stalin. The reinforcement schedule does not take into account the “game state” on the board; if the German player is behind the removals still take place regardless. In the campaign game there are many such restrictions, like those found in 31.0 Soviet Reserve Armies or 32.0 Removals and Upgrades. Certainly, there will be times that these “historical” actions make sense in your game, but just as likely there will be occasions it seems like sheer “lunacy” to pull a unit out at that moment.
Stalingrad ’42 in Perspective
After reading Christer Bergstrom’s two-volume Stalingrad series, Stalingrad: New Perspectives on and Epic Battle, and playing Mark Simonitch’s wargame Stalingrad ’42: Southern Russia, June – December, 1942, I see the wargame as a very fair depiction of the battles of the time. The game model in Stalingrad ’42 appears to fairly treat both sides; altough it recognizes in part some of the claims made by Halder and von Manstein, it does not blatantly handicap the Soviets as one would expect if it leaned too far in that direction. The designer was forced to manipulate the game model (see Full Retreats) to better represent the conditions of the battle, but the adjustments were not in the extreme fashion of wholesale “strategic re-groupings.” With regards to air power, the assumptions in Stalingrad ’42 do note reflect Bergstrom’s assessment of the contribution by the Soviet Air Force. While not cited by Bergstrom as a major issue, the rules for Railheads in Stalingrad ’42 do an excellent job of capturing the impact of railways on the campaign.
Wargames, by their very nature of placing players in positions of a decision maker, remove many of the influences of higher headquarters. In Stalingrad ’42 the influence (interference?) of Hitler and Stalin si minimized, but not totally removed. While players can pursue their own strategy, that strategy must take into account Victory Conditions and reinforcement schedules. There are times when one—or both—may appear to be lunacy but that only increases the realism of the conditions laid out by Bergstrom and to be dealt with by players of Stalingrad ’42.
Feature image courtesy RMN
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