I don’t have personal insight into this matter, but based on the writings of these three authors in the early 2000’s I don’t think there was any love lost between them. During this time Isom and Parshall/Tully were both writing their books and previews of each thesis appeared in the Naval War College Review where things got a bit, uh, “interesting.” In the Summer 2000 issue (Vol. 53 Nr. 3) Isom wrote the article “The Battle of Midway: Why the Japanese Lost” where he previewed his main arguments. A year later, in the Summer 2001 edition (Vol. 54 Nr. 3) Parshall and Tully penned an essay, “Doctrine Matters: Why the Japanese Lost at Midway” which was a direct response to Isom. Not to be outdone, in the same issue Isom penned his response to Parshall/Tully in “They Would Have Found a Way.” This back and forth bickering would continue into their respective books. Parshall/Tully published Shattered Sword first in 2005 and the book went on to critical acclaim. Isom would not publish his book until 2007 and the reception was, shall we say, less boisterous. To this day Shattered Sword is held by many as the gold standard by the revised Midway history crowd whereas Midway Inquest is “just another Midway book.”
The Wargame Within
As I thumbed through Midway Inquest I scanned the chapters and appendix titles and was surprised by Appendix D. I didn’t remember this appendix but this time through the title caught my attention, “A War Game Exercise.” As Isom writes:
The following war game rules, though simpler than those used in such institutions as the Naval War College, simulate the carrier battles of 1942 with quite uncanny accuracy. This is because the values built into them—relating to hit ratios for bombs and torpedoes dropped from various types of aircraft used in 1942, and damage to the carriers of both sides—were derived largely from the statistics of the actual carrier battles of 1942.
Dallas Isom, Midway Inquest, Appendix D, p. 341
Isom uses these war game rules in his “Chapter 10: Postmortem” where he explores several what-if scenarios. Indeed, Chapter 10 is composed mostly of narrative outcomes of several war games and to wargamers appear in many ways like an After Action Report (AAR) or session report.
Isom’s war game rules number only seven and focus on combat results—there are no maneuver or flight or search rules. To me, Isom’s war game is really just the combat model for a wargame and one that uses a very operations research approach based solely on statistical analysis. If there is one lesson the past year of COVID should of taught everyone it is that there are “lies, damn lies, and statistics.” In his what-if scenarios, Isom attempts to appear authoritative by relying on the war game results when in reality he manipulates so many non-combat variables that in the end one must read his scenario as something akin to a fanciful fantasy with only a smidgen of historical grounding. Not that I enjoy them less; rather, I enjoyed reading them for the AAR aspect and it ignited my desire to get Kido Butai to the table to compare the two combat models.
Wargame to Book
Isom doesn’t provide any provenance for his rules so I cannot determine where they derived from. Given Isom’s association with the Naval War College, and even his reference to that institution, it would be reasonable to assume the rules were derived in part from there. Isom’s use of “war game” is also very Naval War College like—whereas “wargame” is used by many it seems the Naval War College has long preferred the terms “war game ” or “war gaming.” On the other hand, the lack of credit given by Isom combined with the lack of sourcing implies that Isom developed these rules on his own. Maybe Isom the lawyer is an aspiring wargame designer?
In the early chapters of The Battle of Arnhem Beevor make it clear that he believes Operation Market Garden was a disaster from the start.
Many historians, with an ‘if only’ approach to the British defeat, have focused so much on different aspects of Operation Market Garden which went wrong they have tended to overlook the central element. It was quite simply a bad plan right from the start and right from the top. Montgomery had not shown any interest in the practical problems surrounding airborne operations. He had not taken any time to study the often chaotic experiences of North Africa, Sicily and the drop on the Cotentin peninsula in Normandy. Montgomery’s intelligence chief, Brigadier Bill Williams, also pointed out the way that ‘Arnhem depended on a study of the ground [which] Monty had not made when he decided on it.’ In fact, he obstinately refused to listen to the Dutch commander-in-chief Prince Bernhard, who warned him about the impossibility of deploying armoured vehicles off the single raised road on the low-lying flood plain.
Williams also acknowledged that at 21st Army Group ‘enemy appreciation was very weak. We knew little about the situation.’ Yet towering over everything else, and never openly admitted, was the fact that the whole operation depended on everything going right, when it was an unwritten rule of warfare that no plan survives contact with the enemy.
Antony Beevor, The Battle of Arnhem, p. 36
Holland ’44 – A Proven War Engine*
Holland ’44 is not a very difficult system to learn. The core of the game is essentially covered in 18 numbered rules written on ~22 double-column pages (I am referencing the Revised May, 2018 version of the rules). The game system is not very “original” in the sense that Mark Simonitch has assembled many proven and well understood mechanics into this game system. Although the rules are not broken out in a “series versus game” set of rules (like so many other War Engine games – SCS I’m looking at you) it is pretty easy to see which rules are “standard” and which rules are “game unique.”
If there is one rule I would highlight in Holland ’44 it is 12.0 Determined Defense. This is not a game-specific rule but rather a series rule. The Designer’s Notes in Holland ’44 mention that the rules for Determined Defense were changed from Ardennes ’44—I can’t speak to those changes since I don’t (presently) own Ardennes ’44. I can say that the rules for Determined Defense go a long way to adding dramatic flavor to battles in Holland ’44. In many games, when a combat result calls for a retreat the defender often has the option of stopping the retreat by taking an additional step-loss. Determined Defense in Holland ’44 starts with the same initial premise but carries it a bit further. Provided at least one step survives combat, the defender can try to cancel the retreat portion, as well as any Disruption and advance after combat. To do so requires a roll on the Determined Defense Table to see if the attempt is successful and if any additional combat losses are incurred. There is even a provision for Desperation Defense (12.4) which can be invoked if an entire defending stack faces elimination. The Determined Defense rule goes a long way towards evoking important thematic elements of a battle, and in the case of Operation Market Garden it is very useful for capturing the flavor of desperate defenses of Allied paratroopers deep behind enemy lines or by understrength German units throwing themselves into battle in an equally desperate bid to slow the Allied advance.
One point I took away from reading The Battle of Arnhem was that Operation Market Garden depended on speed. For Operation Market (the airborne portion) success demanded the speedy seizure of bridges before they could be blown. In Holland ’44 the German player has a 2 in 3 chance of successfully blowing a bridge, except on Turn 1 when it is only a 1 in 2 chance. Further, the Allied airborne army needs to quickly seize bridges and get themselves defensively oriented before German reinforcements arrive. For Operation Garden (the overland portion of the offensive) Allied ground forces need to push up few roads rapidly and try to relieve the airborne troops as soon as possible. Of course, the Germans will be attacking from the flanks and playing Traffic Markers which represent traffic congestion and add movement points.
For my play, the British 1st Parachute Division seized Arnhem Bridge on the morning of Sept 18 thanks in part to the Germans being unable to blow the railway bridge to the west of Arnhem that provided an “end around” pathway. The 82nd Airborne likewise seized Nijmagen Bridge early on Sept 18, but at the cost of abandoning their drop zones (which would come back to haunt them later). The 101st Airborne lost the Son Bridge but took the Best Bridge after making a mad dash from the drop zones. Coming up from the south, elements of 30th Corps reached Eindhoven late Sept 18 and kept pushing, but that resulted in a very narrow path of advance that was easily congested and constantly threatened along the flanks. At the end of the game the Germans inflicted more casualties than VP hexes the Allies secured thus handing victory to the Germans. The German victory very clearly exposed the dangers of the Allies being too hasty.
I Love it When A Plan Comes Together – NOT!
After playing Holland ’44 I heartily agree with Beevor that the plan for Operation Market Garden was poor from the beginning. In my play, the weakest part of the plan exposed was the airborne landing schedule. Historically, Operation Market landed elements of three divisions on the first day and provided for follow-on landings of remaining individual divisions on following days. According to the plan, the remaining elements of the 82nd Airborne were to land on D+1 (Sept 18 – Turn 3) followed by remaining elements of the 101st Airborne on D+2 (Sept 19 – Turn 6). Along the way, the Polish Airborne Brigade may enter (if the weather is right). Of course, the weather determines the number of Airlanding Points available; if the weather is less-than-perfect the arrival will slow down.
Remember what I said about speed above? Well, even after reading The Battle of Arnhem and the Designer’s Notes about the 82nd Airborne drop zones and reviewing the rules for the German 406th Division I still aggressively pushed the initial 82nd drop out of their DZs. As a result, the follow-on airborne elements (slowed due to Cloudy weather) were sent to DZs that were enemy controlled. This was the most disastrous part of the battle and it was only through some fortuitous die rolls that the (few) remaining 82nd defenders in Nijmagen avoided total elimination. Next time I’m going to have to replay the 82nd “closer to history” to see what sort of a difference it makes.
Late to the Game – Again
Holland ’44 was published in 2017. The game uses a set of core mechanics that traces all the way back to Ardennes ’44: The Battle of the Bulge from GMT Games back in 2003. I point out these dates because I have somehow missed this great system for nearly 20 years. Actually, I didn’t miss it as much as I ignored it. I admit that I have been more a tactical wargamer than an operational-level aficionado. Thus, series games like Conflict of Heroes (Academy Games) or Panzer (GMT Games) or Wing Leader (GMT Games) or Command at Sea (Admiralty Trilogy Group) occupy both my World War II shelves and gaming time. Late in 2019 (and seriously in 2020) I discovered the joys of Multi-Man Publishing’s Standard Combat Series (SCS). Now, with Simonitich’s “‘ZOC Bond” series I have found another operational-level war engine that is easy to learn and I like to play. The fact that Holland ’44 is built on a proven war engine is a great draw for me. If there is one part of my wargaming personality that has become very clear to me in the past year it is that I enjoy proven war engines more than learning yet another “new” system.
My copy of Holland ’44 is second hand. Actually, it is third-hand; the gentleman I bought it from said he got it from another wargamer. Whoever the original owner was they treated this game very gently. Not only were all the components complete, but the additional items from “The Northern Scenario” found In C3i Magazine are included. To top it all off, the counters are very neatly trimmed and sorted into bags organized by game use. This loving care is indicative of a true wargamer. Alas, there is no provision for this kind of gamer in Harold Buchanan’s “Historical Conflict Simulation Player Taxonomy.” Regardless, I want to give credit where credit is due!
*I take the term “War Engine” from the excellent chapter “War Engines: Wargames as Systems from the Tabletop to the Computer” by Henry Lowood in Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming (MIT Press, 2016) which was edited by Pat Harrigan and Matthew Kirschenbaum. Lowood calls games that combine a game system plus scenarios a “war engine” as contrasted with early wargames that were monographic (unique game system and one battle/campaign). The earliest example is PanzerBlitz of which Lowood writes,
“In contrast to monographic games, PanzerBlitz introduced the game system as a generator for multiple mini-games. Wargamers came to call these mini-games “scenarios,” possibly borrowing from the term’s currency among RAND’s Cold War gamers to describe synopses or imagined or hypothetical political crisis….Henceforth, I will call this combination of system + scenarios a “War Engine.”
As I was waiting for the new titles to arrive I used a random number generator to select a game from my collection to play. Thus, Mississippi Banzai (XTR Corp, 1990) landed on the gaming table. This “alternate history” game envisions a Stalingrad-like offensive around St Louis in a 1948 as Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany face off in a conquered United States. More thoughts forthcoming soon.
My Kickstarter copy of Supercharged by Jim Dietz is on the mail. I’m looking forward to getting it in ouse this week and not-so-secretly hope the RockyMountainNavy Boys and myself get it to the table in a renewed weekend Game Night.
A narrative focused on personal stories of hardship and suffering that accompanies war. This is a story of human tragedy more than a recounting of a military disaster.
A Bridge Too Far
When I was in high school in the 1980’s the video rental fad was full-bore. One of the movies I remember renting is A Bridge Too Far originally released in 1977 with an all-star cast. That movie, based on a book by Cornelius Ryan (who also did The Longest Day) formed my earliest “knowledge” of Operation Market-Garden. As a wargamer, I studied played other World War II airborne operations in games like Air Assault on Crete/Invasion of Malta 1942 (Avalon Hill, 1977) but in all my forty years I’ve never looked at Market-Garden. That is, until I found Antony Beevor’s The Battle of Arnhem: The Deadliest Airborne Operation of World War II (Viking, 2018) in a bargain books store.
Narrate Me a Story
The Battle of Arnhem is written in a very narrative style that Beevor is famous for. For the historian in me this style of book is a bit challenging because I want to see the sources. Putting that aside, I found the early chapters of the book that concern the planning for the operation deeply disturbing. The incredible combination of intelligence failure, group-think and personal hubris that came together is astounding and Beevor shows it all.
The battle scenes in The Battle of Arnhem are also intensely personal. This is another Beevor-like trademark; he digs into the very personal side of a conflict and shows it to you, warts and all. Sometimes it is hard to remember that the Battle of Arnhem is talking about a huge multi-divisional operation as it focuses on some very small, personal moments.
The Battle of Arnhem also gives us the perspective of the Germans and especially the Dutch – both civilians and the Resistance. This latter is a perspective I was not very cognizant of and welcomed reading about here.
At the end of the day, The Battle of Arnhem is more a collection of human-suffering stories than a strict military history. Beevor seemingly lets his early criticism of Field Marshal Montgomery also be his conclusion. It’s hard to tell because this book, which starts out talking about the battle, ends by only talking about the people. Those stories are important to hear, but if you are looking for a book on the history of Operation Market-Garden then you need to look elsewhere.
In anticipation of reading The Battle of Arnhem, I picked up a copy of Mark Simontitch’s Holland ’44: Operation Market Garden, September 1944 (GMT Games, 2017). I laid out the map while reading the book and eventually set up the game. This was very helpful as the maps in The Battle of Arnhem book are actually not very useful.
As far as playing the game and reading the book I see two possible approaches. You can try to play “pure” as in play before reading to avoid introducing any bias into your decisions from the book. Or you might want to read the early chapters and then play out the operation, followed by reading how the actual battle went and comparing your results to history. A word of warning here; the intensely personal focus of so many parts of The Battle of Arnhem is in some ways mismatched with Holland ’44 which is an operational-level wargame with a focus around the battalion-level. There is also no real Dutch Resistance portrayed in Holland ’44.
Beevor, Antony, The Battle of Arnhem: The Deadliest Airborne Operation of World War II, New York: Viking, 2018.
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
Storms of Steel
Academy Games, 2017
Table 1 – My Tactical-scale Wargames with Battle of Kursk scenarios
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 & ThunderScenario 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
Spring has arrived meaning those long, dark winter days are behind us and outdoor chores demand my attention. Spring is traditionally a slower gaming time in the RockyMountainNavy home as we all are more busy and “spring fever” sets in.
In the past few months there has been something of a renaissance of wargames on Kickstarter. Since early February I tracked at least eight wargame(ish) titles that I was VERY tempted to pull the trigger on and purchase. Add to that a further seven boardgames and it is very easy to see that the first quarter of Kickstarter in 2021 could be very costly for me—as in nearly $900 in pledges assuming lowest levels of support and not factoring in any shipping! Alas, I ended up only backing one wargame/boardgame (Root: The Marauder Expansion from Leder Games) and even then I went in at a lesser level.
As I write this post, I am tracking 26 items on my Preorder & Kickstarter Roll GeekList. With a bit of some luck, I might see three games deliver this week and another two within 30 days:
Supercharged (Jim Dietz) – Kickstarter. From an update on March 16 – “Bad news/not controllable: The games are still being processed on the West Coast–this is due to a backlog of shipping arrivals and also a shortage of labor at the docks (whether this is underemployment or people out currently due to COVID, I was not told). I am supposed to have an updated ETA by the end of this week..”
Looks bigger than it is. The Battle of Prokhorovka is largely a textual retelling of the extensive database collected by The Dupuy Institute on the battle. Many details but best parts may actually be the sidebar texts that cover a myriad of associated issues in a short, succinct manner.
The “Short” 639-Page Version
The Battle of Prokhorovka is a hefty book coming in at a grand total of 639 pages. Surprisingly, it is an abridged version of the author’s 1,662 page mega-book Kursk: The Battle of Prokhorovka (Aberdeen Books, 2015). This abridged version focuses almost exclusively on the actions of the SS Panzer Corps and supporting III Panzer Corps from July 9-18, 1943. The account is based primarily on German unit records complimented by some access to Soviet Army Files from the Russian Military Archives. The work was originally accomplished by The Dupuy Institute for the US Army Concepts Analysis Agency (CAA), better know today as the Center for Army Analysis.
Deconstructing German Myths
I noted after reading The Battle of Kursk by Jonathan Glantz that his book attempted to deconstruct the German myths around the Battle of Kursk and retell the story in a more balanced fashion by incorporating Soviet archival materials. Christopher Lawrence in The Battle of Prokhorovka attempts much the same, but instead of depending heavily on Soviet archive material like Glantz does or on memoirs of German officers like many others, he digs into German (and as available some Soviet) unit reports. You know, those daily, often monotonous tomes of numbers. The end result is a viewpoint in retelling the story that still is biased towards the Germans, but one that attempts to “ground” itself in data rather than emotion.
With the focus on two German corps on the south side of the Kursk salient, The Battle of Prokhorovka is really just a small part of the larger story. That said, one might assume that with 639 pages this volume is very detailed. Surprisingly, I actually found Lawrences’s The Battle of Prokhorovka easier to read than Glantz’s The Battle of Kursk. Maybe this was because the language used was less emotional. It might also be easier to read because The Battle of Porkhorovka is actually laid out on the page in an easier to read manner – there’s more white space on some pages than I expected which lengthens the book but doesn’t expand the content. There are also several interesting sidebar content areas, like the “Terrain Photo” or “Photo Reconnaissance” sections. There are also many interesting sidebars on the tanks and various “numbers” associated with the battle.
Large Clash but Small Numbers
As someone who grew up steeped in the myths of the great Battle of Kursk, it never ceases to amaze me just how small the battle actually was. Not only was the area very small (10’s of kilometers across and in depth) but also for all the “Corps” and “Armies” involved the number of tanks was actually far less than the myth portrays. The two numbers that jumped out at me in this reading of The Battle of Prokhorovka was the Panthers and German tank losses on July 12.
According to Lawrence, around 200 Panther tanks were assigned to Panzer Regiment von Lauchert supporting the Gross Deutschland Panzer Grenadier Division. Here is what happened to all those Panthers, on the first day (July 5) of the offensive:
The Panther Regiment started with as many as 198 tanks operational. By the end of the day, they were down to 119 operational. As well as can be determined, two were lost due to friendly fire, one to hostile fire, six broke down during the march in the morning, and up to 19 were lost to mines. The remaining estimated 51 tanks were most likely mechanical failures. The Panther regiment had hardly seen action, but was now down to around 60 percent of its strength. This does not seem worth the two-month delay in the start of the offensive for this level of support.
The Battle of Prokhorovka, p. 56
A single graphic on page 344 of The Battle of Prokhorovka destroys the myth of the battle better than any written account can. According to Lawrence, the Lieberstandarte SS Adolf Hitler Division lost 19 tanks on the fateful day of July 12 as compared to 159 in the opposing Soviet XXIX Tank Corps. Lawrence further points out that many “losses” claimed in battle were made good by battlefield recovery effort, meaning losses in combat don’t necessarily mean losses in combat power over the course of the campaign.
The Battle of Prokhorovka, focusing on the actions of the SS Panzer Corps and III Panzer Corps, is a very good source for wargame scenarios or campaigns based on the actions of these units. That said, Lawrence generally discusses unit at the Brigade/Regiment levels and occasionally down to Battalions. If one wants to recreate more tactical scenario situations like in Conflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel, Kursk 1943 3rd Edition (Academy Games, 2019) then there might actually NOT be enough detail in this book. That said, I encourage every potential scenario designer to focus not on recreating a historical event in a scenario, but instead focus on recreating the historical situation in a more “inspired by history” situation.
The accounts of battle in The Battle of Prokhorovka, and especially how many tank “losses” didn’t come from hostile fire, also challenges wargame scenario designers. I know of few scenarios where units are attrited before contact (“fall out”) or where mines and engineers become so important for a tank battle. It’s a new perspective and one often overlooked, if for no other reason than it “ain’t cool” if you don’t get to blow up tanks in battle!
Lawrence, Christopher A., The Battle of Prokhorovka: The Tank Battle of Kursk, The largest Clash of Armor in History, Guilford: Stackpole Books abridged second edition, 2019.
This History to Wargame series focuses on two books, The Battle of Kursk by David Glantz (University of Kansas Press, 1999) and The Battle of Prokhorovka by Christopher Lawrence (Stackpole Books, 2019). The feature wargame is Trevor Bender’s Battle for Kursk: The Tigers are Burning, 1943 (RBM Studios, 2020).
Lead Up to Citadel (March – June 1943)
The Glantz book is an excellent overview of the forces, leaders, and situation leading up to the Battle of Kursk. Indeed, the Battle for Kursk wargame closely mirrors Glantz’s discussion of the lead up to the battle in terms of the units discussed and the area focused upon. Having the Battle for Kursk game map out while reading Glantz helps immensely with understanding the geography.
One part that caught my attention for a possible “what if” was the plans for Operations Habicht and Panther (Glantz, p. 25) which were intended as follow-on attacks from Citadel. But “what if” one reversed the plan? What if the Germans launched Habicht/Panther in May 1943 (Turn C) before the Soviet fortifications in that area are complete with orders to seize Kuyansk and cut the rail line from the south into the Kursk salient?
At several points in the lead up to the battle, Glantz discusses the “correlation of forces.” He first discusses this on page 65 and again when he shows a German Staff Estimate on page 75. Now I wonder if I need to bounce these figures off another Lawrence book, War By Numbers: Understanding Conventional Combat (Potomac Books, 2017) which makes extensive use of data from the Kursk campaign.
One aspect of the lead up to Operation Citadel that Lawrence emphasizes is the political aspects of the offensive, especially Hitler’s concern about his allies. Lawrence asserts that the need to prop up Italy was an important distraction. Now I better understand one of the alternate starting scenarios in WW2 Deluxe: European Theater (Canvas Temple Publishing, 2018) which has the “Citadel and Avalanche (Summer 1943)” start scenario. These two offensives were not only linked temporally but politically as well.
Lawrence also goes much deeper than Glantz into the discussion of the different tanks and how tank production by the Germans in many ways drove the start date of Citadel. For all the different tanks discussed it is interesting to see how few actual tanks were in a given unit. It is also interesting to see all the different models that were thrown into battle at Kursk. The tank vs. tank battles are certainly played up in the wargames Conflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel, Kursk 1943 (Academy Games) or Panzer (GMT Games) but Lawrence reminds us that there were many other tanks on the battlefield, including more than a few designed for infantry support.
A possible “what if” scenario that jumped out at me from Lawrence’s preparations was an idea rejected at the June 27 pre-battle commander’s conference. At that meeting Hitler, “rejected a recent memo from Army Group Center to evacuate the Orel bulge so as to create an operational reserve. He also again rejected the idea of a “backhand” strike. He decided it would be better to seize the initiative and attack” (Lawrence, 29). This could be recreated in Battle for Kursk by having the Germans chose a “Reposition” or maybe a “Deploy” Posture on Turn D and evacuating the Orel bulge by realigning forces along the 1800 hex column. This would shorten the front lines in this area from 7 hexes to four hexes. More importantly, the four Infantry Corps and four Panzer Corps within the Orel bulge would take over the new line (4x Infantry Corps?) leaving four Panzer Corps to become that “operational reserve.” It might still be possible to launch Citadel on Turn 1 and not lose the initiative to the Soviets. [In Battle for Kursk if the Germans do not attack by Turn 1 they “lose the initiative” to the Soviets as the German bonus VP marker on Kursk turns Soviet and is placed in Kiev.]
Battle for Kursk – Alternate Preparations
I decided to play out an alternate start for Battle for Kursk. German High Headquarters ordered Operation Habicht/Panther starting on April 12 (Turn B) while at the same time ordering the evacuation of the Orel bulge. The weather is non-randomized (uses Mud turns as printed on Turn Track).
Why Turn B when I talked Turn C above? First off, the Soviet Fortifications in this area were expected to be completed on Turn C so rather than have the Germans attack into the fortifications the offense jumped-off a turn earlier. Of course, Turn C was historically Mud; maybe I should of used random weather?
FAILURE – Although 1st and 4th Panzer Army were able to cross the Donets, progress was immediately stymied by a stubborn Soviet defense. The Soviets strengthened the Southwest Front to limit further German penetrations. The rasputitsa (Mud on Turn C) brought the offensive to a complete halt.
DISASTER – German 2nd Panzer Army realigned allowing the 9th Army to go into operational reserve. By mid-July (Turn 2) the Soviets had strengthened the West and Bryansk Fronts which broke through the German lines at Bryansk and eventually led to the collapse of the northern part of Army Group Center and the capture of Smolensk (VP). The commitment of the new German operational reserve (9th Army) to the defense of Gomel (VP) provided an opportunity for the Soviets to remove the Belgograd salient in August into September (Turns 3-5) by retaking Belgograd, Kharkov (VP), and Sumy from Army Group South.
Army Group Center proved unable to hold Vitebsk (VP) in the north. The German 9th Army attempted to defend Gomel (VP) but was ground down and the city lost. 4th Panzer Army was beaten up withdrawing from the Belgograd salient and rendered combat ineffective. The 1st Panzer Army and 6th Army withdrew in fair order across the Dnieper. Final score = +5 German Operational Victory.
Missed the Backhand
In my post-game AAR, it dawned on me that, acting as the staff of Army Group Center, I had totally failed my von Manstein-check and employed my operational reserve in a very poor way. Rather than taking inspiration from General von Manstein and looking for a chance to use the German operational reserve to deliver a ‘backhand blow’ and cut off the deep penetration advances of the Soviet, I instead committed them to a valiant, but ultimately fruitless, defensive stand in front of Gomel.
Next Time – Part 3 Tactical Choices
Feature image “Manstein with tanks” courtesy weaponsandwarfare.com