War in the East: Baba Yaga’s hut

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The German crossing of the Dnepr River and the subsequent battle for Smolensk has been the subject of relatively few wargames. Probably the best-known among people who know about that kind of stuff is PanzerGruppe Guderian, published by Simulations Publications Inc. (SPI) in 1976 and republished by Avalon Hill in 1984. It had some interesting innovations in game mechanics: untried units on the Soviet side were flipped over to reveal their strength only at the time of their first combat, which could be a surprise to both players and made exact odds calculation impossible. The slashing armored tactics on the German side were modeled by very generous overrun rules, which allowed attacks during the movement phase at very low odds differentials, unlike any other game to that date. No rules were included for bare-chested fighting.

On the computer, SSG released Across the Dnepr in 2003 as an add-on to its excellent Korsun Pocket. It had terrible balance issues, and I haven’t tried the second edition, released in 2010 as an add-on to Kharkov: Disaster on the Donets. I’m curious to see how the new version works, so that’s now on the list. The first Panzer Campaigns game from HPS and John Tiller was released in 1999 and entitled Smolensk ’41, and happens to have been the best one of the series. Draw your own conclusions.

I’m about to find out how the War in the East version stacks up, because at the beginning of Turn 5 I’m at the Dnepr, and don’t plan on stopping.

After the jump, Guderian’s not all that

The panzer group’s namesake, General Heinz Guderian, survived the war and published a memoir in 1952 entitled Panzer Leader, which included an extended chapter entitled “The Campaign in Russia, 1941”. In the introduction, British historian Sir Basil Liddell-Hart calls it “by far the most detailed account yet available of that invasion”. It’s a pretty dry read for the most part: a meticulous East Prussian accounting of his whereabouts on every day of the campaign, who he talked to, where he rode in what kind of vehicle, and what kind of well his water came from. To be honest, I’m still kind of disillusioned about the well thing.

But if you’re looking for a tutorial on how to actually play the game rather than the one in the manual about how to click on some incomprehensible stuff, you might try starting on page 140 of Panzer Leader. On page 170, Guderian describes the events surrounding our current game action.

On July 10th and 11th the Dnieper was crossed according to plan and at the cost of only light casualties.

During the morning of the 10th, XXIV Panzer Corps reported that it had achieved a crossing near Starye Bychov. In the afternoon of that day I visited the XLVII Panzer Corps once again to make sure that the preparations were completed and the troops in good fighting condition. … I once again impressed on the divisional commander how extremely vital it was that Smolensk be reached with all speed as soon as the Dnieper was successfully crossed. So in XLVII Panzer Corps, too, the difficult business of assembly and preparation had been successfully carried out, and therefore I anticipated the events of the next few days with confidence.

For the further advance after the Dnieper was crossed the following tasks were assigned:
XXIV Panzer Corps was to head for the Propoisk-Roslavl road. It was to take care to guard its right flank against any attacks from the Shlobin-Rogachev area, and its left flank against the enemy in Mogilev.
XLVI Panzer Corps was to advance through Gorki-Pochinok to Elnya, while guarding its right flank against Mogilev.
XLVII Panzer Corps was assigned Smolensk as its main objective, while guarding its left flank along the line of the Dnieper, from Orsha to Smolensk, and not forgetting the enemy still inside Orsha.

For those of you who haven’t internalized the geography of small western Russian towns, I’ve included those names on a screenshot at the beginning of this article showing my position before my Dnepr crossing move, along with some arrows and labels. The arrows and unit designations are the historical ones, because the locations of the panzer corps in Panzer Group 2 (Guderian) aren’t necessarily the same. Not that it matters. My objective is basically the same: drive north and south of Smolensk and encircle the city. Panzer Group 3 is between Smolensk and Vitebsk and will drive north, while Guderian’s three panzer corps (in no particular order) take the southern route.

Avalon Hill used to have this ad copy a long time ago which read, “Can YOU do better than General Patton?” or General Lee, or Meade or Custer or whoever you were supposed to be role-playing that day. In this game, I’m trying to outdo the inventor of blitzkrieg warfare.

That screenshot at the top is the data in this experiment. Unfortunately, I’m a week late to the dance, as it’s the 17 July turn already. I haven’t quoted it, but if you were to read further in that passage, you’d learn that much of Guderian’s infantry was still around Minsk. So is mine.

Major river crossings in War in the East are a bit of a project. On page 190 of the manual, you’ll find the Movement Point Cost Chart, or as anyone who has played old board wargames calls it, the Terrain Effects Chart. About halfway down the page, you’ll see that if you’re crossing a major river into a hex free of enemy Zone of Control (the six hexes surrounding an enemy unit), motorized units pay +4 movement points and non-motorized units pay +2. No big deal. But if you’re crossing into an enemy ZOC, motorized units pay +18 (!). That’s more movement points than some of my panzer divisions have now, due to supply shortages. Non-motorized units, on the other hand, pay +5. So it works much better to clear the opposite shore with infantry before bringing the panzers over.

The result of my historical comparison experiment is below.


Sure enough, the Soviet defenses on the upper Dnepr are shattered, and I’m two hexes from Smolensk. Many of the defenders are now clustered in the southeast in routed form. The only place I didn’t get off my start line was at the southern edge of that screen, and that has a lot to do with the swampy terrain and the fact that the Soviets had a bridgehead there to start (which I’ve eliminated). The problem is that my objective isn’t Smolensk. It’s Moscow. And Leningrad. And Kiev.

There are 22 hexes between Smolensk and Moscow. There are 36 hexes between the Soviet border and Smolensk. I’ve only played five turns. It’s only 17 July. Based on this progress, you can imagine why Winston Churchill asked his director of military intelligence on 24 October, “What, in your opinion, are the chances of Moscow being taken before the winter? I should be inclined to put it even odds.”

Up next: the diablo is in the details
Click here for the previous War in the East game diary.

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