Panzer Play test the West!

Written by Rob Doane:

Jim Day and I recently finished playtesting scenario 27 from the upcoming Panzer Expansion #3: Drive to the Rhine. This scenario features Canadian paratroopers in action on D-Day as they fight to secure key objectives around the villages of Robbehomme and Varaville. Since this scenario shows off the new rules for airborne operations that come with Expansion #3, I thought it would be a good idea to post an AAR so that Panzer fans can get a little preview of the new situations that await them in the next game in the series. It’s also a chance to see an almost-all infantry scenario in action, something that is probably new to a lot of players.

First, a little background information. Here is the official scenario description:

“Operation Tonga was the codename assigned to the British 6th Airborne Division’s actions as part of Operation Overlord. Tasked with a number of objectives, the division’s paratroop and glider brigades all participated in the operation landing on the eastern edge of the overall invasion area near the French city of Caen. The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, 3rd Parachute Brigade, was tasked with a number of objectives including bridge destruction and the capture other key terrain features in and around Robehomme and Varaville. As with the other parachute units in the division, they were initially scattered over the area, some missing their drop zones by a considerable distance. German resistance in the landing area consisted primarily of the 709th and 716th Infantry Divisions. Both were static formations consisting of conscript and medically downgraded troops. They were in no way considered first line units. Although the 12 SS Panzer and 352nd Infantry Divisions were in the area, it had been estimated that it would take them at least 8 hours before they could reach the landing zones. After regrouping and engaging the German defenders, the Canadian paratroopers were able to accomplish their primary objectives and hold on until relieved.”

The scenario lasts 25 turns and utilizes three maps: 18, 19, and 16. The Canadians have two companies of veteran parachute infantry units with superb morale plus a pathfinder section to aid with the landing (more on this in a moment). The Germans get two companies of regular infantry with good morale – not exactly who want to go up against an elite airborne force. But both companies get a little extra help in the form of a 7.5cm leIG, a 5cm PaK 38, an attached medium artillery battery, and 2 Marder IIIs.

The three main objectives are the bridge in the center of the map (which must be destroyed), the village of Robbehomme, and the three fords across the stream. The victory conditions are such that the Canadians need to capture two of those three objectives to win, or at least take one and deny control of another one to the Germans. Taking too many casualties can alter that equation, of course.

Because of the difference in unit quality, the Canadians get a +20 to their initiative rolls while the Germans suffer a -20. Obviously they will not get to fire first very often! Moonlight conditions are also in effect which means that there is an extra -2 on the spotting chart. Jim and I decided to go ahead and use the optional Hidden Unit rules as well as Morale and Ammo Limits.

The Germans must set up first and have to split their forces between all three maps. They must place at least seven combat units on map 16, at least seven on map 18, and at least three on map 19. Here is how Jim chose to defend the objectives.

Now comes the fun part. The Canadians are allowed to place their pathfinder section in any legal landing hex on the map. After doing so, they decide where and when the two companies will make their drops. They are allowed to jump anywhere on the map from turns 1-5, but this has to be decided before the game begins. Obviously the big questions for the Canadian player are, do you jump in a safe area away from the objectives, or closer to them where you might take more casualties but can potentially overwhelm the Germans before they are able to respond? Do you drop both companies close together and maximize your firepower, or spread them out to threaten several objectives at once? Should they jump right away on turn 1, or do you hold some units back to keep the Germans guessing?

I decided to drop one company close to the village of Donnelay on turn 1, then drop the second company a little west of there on turn 3. My plan was to unite both companies roughly in the middle of the map and be in position to threaten all 3 objectives which would hopefully force the Germans to spread themselves out too thin. But first, the paratroopers needed to survive their jump and consolidate….

In order to determine where a paratroop unit lands, you first declare what hex it is aiming for, then roll a d6 to determine the first direction the unit will drift. Next, roll a d100 to determine how far in that direction the unit drifts, and place it in the correct hex. Having a pathfinder located in your drop hex will grant you a -20 to this roll which cuts down on the amount of drift you suffer. But wait, you’re not done yet. Repeat these steps to determine the second drift direction and distance, and wherever that puts you, that is where the unit ultimately lands. Hopefully it is in clear terrain and not built up areas, or worse yet, water, of which there is a fair amount in this scenario! The final step is to roll on the Landing Status table and find out what condition the unit is in after landing. The worse the terrain, the more likely it will be suppressed or take casualties. If you are so unfortunate as to land directly on top of an enemy leg unit, hand to hand combat ensues with a -10 modifier for the paratroops.

Here is the situation after my initial landing on turn 1:

The scattering was not too bad with most units landing within 2-3 hexes of the pathfinder. But you might notice some problems right off the bat. First, one of my squads along with my valuable three inch mortar section landed on the opposite side of the bridge right next to a dug in German squad. While it is generally a good idea to attack bridges from both ends simultaneously, it also generally a good idea to send more than just a single squad and a mortar against one of those ends! Next, see that section that landed on the road directly in front of the two German guns? That would be my company commander who apparently decided to play hero and go capture the bridge all by himself. I’m all for leading from the front, but I think he took it to extremes as his immediate death clearly demonstrated.

Although I did not keep detailed notes during the game, I did record most of it on VASSAL and will try to present the highlights here.

Turn 2

I begin the work of consolidating the paratroopers and getting them into position to either head east for one of the fords or plunge straight ahead to attack the bridge. I try to get them set up in the wood line just south of the road while also holding on to Donnelay with the one unit that drifted over there. The Germans send four squads down there to act as a thorn in my side. I also wonder where those two Marders are headed…

Turns 3-4

Time for Company B to make its entrance! Their drop zone is a little further south than the one used by Company A. While this puts them further away from the Germans and hence in less immediate danger upon landing, it also puts them closer to the map edge. If any units drift off the map edge, their entrance is delayed by a number of turns equal to the distance they drifted off map. For some reason, my COs just can’t get it together in this game. Maybe Company B’s commander saw what happened to the other CO and decided it would be better to jump too late rather than too early. Whatever the reason, he and another squad drift off map and will spend several turns trying to make it back to the company’s position.

Back near the bridge, Company A gets revenge for their fallen CO and takes out one of the German PaKs along with its transport (the trucks are actually supposed to be limbers but I didn’t have the correct graphics in VASSAL yet).

Turns 5-6

While Company B consolidates, the action shifts over to Donnelay as it becomes clear that the Germans will contest control of the village. Donnelay isn’t worth any victory points but the longer the Germans hold it, the longer they can hold up the Canadian advance as a significant force here behind Canadian lines would make it very hard for them to advance on the ford (the German control marker in this screenshot). Two Canadian squads move into the village while their comrades lay down suppressive fire from the nearby scrub (speaking of “comrades”, I didn’t have the files for the British leg units at the time of this playing so we are using Soviet counters to represent the Canadians)

Meanwhile, Company B sprints across the open ground southeast of Robbehomme to try to link up with Company A. Jim has positioned some of his Germans to spray them with long range fire. Unfortunately they are unable to stay completely out of sight behind the hills and take a few casualties as they move. Jim has also figured out by now that I am concentrating both companies against the bridge and has moved as much heavy weaponry as he can over to protect it. All four Marders plus four more squads have now arrived and are ready to blast away at anyone they spot.

Turns 7-8

As Company B continues to head northeast towards the bridge, the German unleash another nasty surprise. Hidden Unit marker #1 reveals an overwatch command and attempts to call in artillery on a few units bringing up the rear. This means that a CO lurks underneath that Hidden Unit marker as they are the only ones who can call for indirect fire on the German side. The last thing I need is artillery raining down on my head as I try to assault the bridge, so I’m forced to stop moving for a turn and duck into Full Cover in order to get out of sight.

Turns 9-15

The action around the bridge slows down while attention once again shifts to Donnelay. At this point the Germans were down to two suppressed half squads and one suppressed full squad holding the village. I had two suppressed full squads taking them on and figured that with my unit quality bonus, I should be able to mop up the village in hand to hand combat with no trouble. *Should* be able to……but it turned out that these Germans had a little more pluck in them than I was expecting! My guess is they were hardened veterans from the eastern front who were transferred to rear guard duty after being wounded. They certainly knew a thing or two about hand to hand combat as they took out one of my squads with relative ease. Suddenly I found myself wishing I had sent more units over there to take care of them.

Back over at the bridge, lo and behold, look who it is! My CO that parachuted off board has finally arrived on turn 12, having spent only half the game trying to find his company. Figuring that his long journey is finally over and forgetting that the Germans can still spot him even in moonlight unless he is in full cover, the brave captain at last moves up to take charge of the situation……and is promptly cut down by overwatch fire from one of the squads near the bridge. “What a moron!” whispered one of the Canadian privates as he watched in the darkness.

With that, the Canadians lost their ability to call in indirect fire. This was no small thing, as several of their units are equipped with 2 inch mortars that can be used to fire flares, smoke, and high explosives. They can still do those things as direct fire, of course, but the benefits of smoke and flares don’t take effect until the next phase, meaning for example that any smoke will not hinder the enemy’s fire during the current direct fire phase. Kind of a bummer.

Turns 16-17

At this point the Canadian have massed as much firepower as they can around the bridge and are ready to attack. There are ten turns remaining in the game which is not necessarily very much time, so they need to start the attack now if they are going to whittle down the defenders enough to get in close and blow up the bridge. The only units capable of doing this are the engineers of which the Canadians have six. I think I had already lost at least one of them at this point so I knew I had to be careful about exposing them to enemy fire. If they got shot up, there would be no way to take out the bridge even if I cleared it of enemy opposition.

I begin by illuminating the bridge hex as well as the one next to it that contains a squad under an improved position. There are four squads and two Marders sitting right on the bridge, but the squads are not under full cover so the illumination allows me to spot them while remaining unseen to the enemy. I’m hoping that I can blast them with an initial round of small arms fire that will cause plenty of casualties and suppressions, rendering them incapable of resisting me as I close for hand to hand combat. I get good results on turn 17, eliminating two squads outright and suppressing a half squad.

Over in Donnelay, the fight for the village has settled down into a slugfest as both sides sit under full cover and fire away, hoping to get a lucky shot. I do finally get a couple lucky kills that swings the balance in my favor, but the German resistance has held me up far longer than I would have liked.

Turns 18-20

The bridge erupts into a maelstrom of small arms fire as both sides fire at each other in the darkness. I’m just hoping to suppress them enough that I can rush in with my veterans for some hand to hand combat. All four Marders park themselves on the bridge and blast away at the scrub. I have a few units that are armed with PIATs and that could, theoretically, take out the Marders if they could, theoretically, get within two hexes of them. No way they can pull that off with two unsuppressed squads sitting adjacent to the bridge, though, so I try a few more turns of direct fire to see if I can at least cause them to get their heads down and think long and hard about whether or not this Fuhrer guy is really worth dying for.

Turns 21-22

The paratroopers make decent headway but continue to take casualties in the process. They absolutely cannot trade squad for squad, so it’s time to try a different approach. I use my engineers to lay smoke between them and the Germans on the far side of the bridge so that they can concentrate all of their firepower on the one dug in squad on the near side. Unfortunately none of them are particularly good shots and fail to get a useful result. Time is running short now, and unfortunately the Canadians cannot wait any longer. Two squads and the pathfinders rush forward to engage the Germans in the improved position, but are suppressed in the process, making them ineligible for hand to hand combat. Stuck out in the open with no place to go……this is not what they were taught in basic training!

Further east, the group that took Donnelay is now advancing to take the ford. One of the units has a 2 inch mortar and fires smoke at the Germans to screen their advance.

Turns 23-25

Time has run out at the bridge. The airborne engineers need one turn to move adjacent to the bridge and at least one more turn to attack it. But with only three engineer units left and all reduced to half squads, they have a less than 10% chance to destroy the bridge on any given turn. The time has come to just throw them out there and hope for spectacularly good dice, a tactic that is near and dear to every wargamer’s heart. This is where my lack of ability to call for indirect fire finally catches up with me. One of my mortars that has been busy firing smoke at the Germans fails a critical Limited Ammo check and has to pass the turn doing nothing useful. On the next turn, all of the smoke finally clears away revealing a surprised and disheartened group of engineers that were not counting on having their demolition work interrupted by a storm of incoming metallic projectiles. If I had been able to call for indirect fire, I could have made another attempt to fire smoke that would have screened them during the direct fire phase. Alas, I cannot fire my smoke until direct fire and its effects will not help them until the following phase. The Germans thus have an unobstructed line of sight to their vital organs, most of which end up coating the surface of the bridge and at least making it very slippery for the hordes of rear echelon units that rush forward to attack the Normandy beachheads in the hours that follow.

On a bright note, one of my PIAT-armed paratroopers does get off a lucky shot that lights up one of the Marders, but at this point the Germans are too busy deciding who gets dibs on the jaunty red berets to notice.

Here is how the game ended:

In spite of my failure to take any of the objectives, I had a great time with this scenario and really enjoyed the challenge of playing an all-infantry force. I am still getting the hang of using leg units in Panzer and find that I tend to rush in too quickly even though I should know better by now. I was hoping to make better use of my qualitative advantage over the German conscripts, but Jim did a good job of placing them where their inevitable sacrifice would still serve a useful purpose. I’m still not sure if it would have been a better idea to drop one company on the other side of the river and attack the bridge from both directions. I felt like the terrain on the northern side of the map was less friendly to airborne landings, and I was especially afraid that some of my units would land in the drink and be immediately eliminated. On the other hand, I might have done better by dropping closer to the bridge and getting their first even if it caused me a few more casualties. There are clearly many options to explore in this scenario, and much of the Canadian player’s strategy will be dictated by the German setup. I’m looking forward to giving it another try!

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