A lot of people might not have realized it, but railroads used to be pretty important. Without them there would have been no hoboes in Bugs Bunny cartoons, and without the ability to sit around and build track, sell goods, and upgrade trains, a lot of college students would probably have passed their physics midterms.
After the jump, it turns out railroads were also pretty important for attacking Russia.
Rail networks fall into the category of “infrastructure rules” which beginning wargamers probably don’t even know exist, but grognards somehow internalize before they ever move a single counter. Anyone who has played The Russian Campaign understands that you need to protect your rail lines with friendly zones of control or the Russian player will place those dreaded partisan counters to break them. That was the whole point of partisans in that game: isolate portions of the front by breaking the railroads so the Germans can’t reinforce, and then counterattack. It made a huge difference if you were, say, counterattacking near Leningrad that the Hermann Goering panzer division could make it all the way to the front versus having to get off in Riga.
Which makes it interesting that in War in the East, rail movement is almost an afterthought compared to rail effects on supply. I know, I know. At the scale of two months per turn (The Russian Campaign), supply is abstracted into rail movement, so that the inability of units to move all the way to the front in two months (which they almost certainly could have done just on foot) because of a broken rail line reflects more the inability to supply those units that it does their movement speed, as if they just rode up to the track the partisans had blown up and were like, “gosh, I suppose we’ll have to walk from here”. It’s not even like the rail line stayed blown up for two whole months, then suddenly was magically fixed. I’m all about abstraction in wargames. Don’t even go there.
But it’s kind of funny how these facile representations end up influencing your perceptions. In the Russian Campaign, you just kind of captured rail lines and fixed them, and everything was ok. War in the East makes you work a lot harder. Rail engineers have to convert every individual hex of track before it’s usable. It’s a non-trivial use of your game time.
Because I’ve been reading David Glantz’s Barbarossa Derailed (Vol. I), I’m pretty familiar with Eastern Front rail issues. Because I’m very competitive and have a high opinion of myself and my ability to conduct global warfare, I was pretty interested to read this bit:
Although the Wehrmacht had yet to encounter any serious logistical problems, it was already clear that the army’s lines of communication were rapidly lengthening, and the rail and road network was deteriorating markedly the further its forces advanced into the depths of the prewar Soviet Union. Accustomed to European standards where a field army could expect to control at least one double-tracked rail line, when it lunged into the Soviet Union, Army Group Center found it had to depend on just one main line to support its three armies and two panzer groups. Despite working around the clock, by 1 July its railroad engineers managed to restore the Brest-Minsk line only as far as Baranovichi, a distance of 300 kilometers, with one track operational on German gauge and the other on wider Russian gauge. Laboring feverishly, the engineers were able to push the latter to Stolbtsy on 3 July and Minsk a day later.
If you take a look at the screenshot below, you’ll see exactly how well I’ve done compared to the historical achievements of German railroad engineers.
The black track is converted to German (European) gauge and repaired.. The orange track is track I converted and repaired this past turn. The red track is blown up and waiting. So that’s not working out so well for me. In case you were wondering, this screenshot is taken from the 4 July turn. From a historical standpoint, I should already have this track completed. From an aesthetic standpoint, I drew that squiggly line in there, so don’t blame the game artists.
What did I do wrong? I dunno, man. If I knew what I did wrong then I’d already be winning. But I have a feeling it has something to do with this part of the game manual, specifically page 194:
126.96.36.199 Automatic Rail Line Repair
Repairs will be made as headquarters units automatically detach construction and labor support units and send them to damaged rail lines. Unlike other support units, these units will appear on the map in the hexes they are repairing, and may not be moved by the player other than to send them back to their attached headquarters unit […] there is a limit to the distance that the automated rail repair units will operate from the HQ unit to which they are attached, which is based on command range.
So what I was doing wrong was simply using my autonomous rail engineer units (called FBD units) to repair the rail lines without realizing that I needed to keep headquarters units within command range so they could augment my main rail repair. I generally like the way War in the East keeps its auxiliary units out of sight (abstracted) unlike the Panzer Campaigns series, but in this case, I guess it makes sense to display the repair units that you don’t control just so you can see what they’re doing. Unfortunately, I had not read that apparently very important part of the manual. My fault.
How coincidental is it, then, that my offensive in the Army Group Center area is running out of gas? My infantry units are way behind the panzer spearheads, which themselves seem to be at the limits of their effective range. I’m not willing to extend them much farther east for fear of having them cut off and destroyed, which makes this part of the game all the more frustrating. How interesting is it, then, to encounter this passage in Barbarossa Derailed?
In short, given ammunition and fuel requirements and the realities of the railroad and road network, by mid-July it was already evident an advance by Army Group Center to Moscow in the immediate future would be logistically impossible. Even without enemy resistance, which there would undoubtedly be, the army group’s three armies needed 33 railroad supply trains daily to mount such an offensive, while fewer than 24 trains were available to support the entire army group. Therefore the discussions between Bock, Kluge, Hoth and Guderian regarding the capture of Moscow in the near future were purely academic exercise. Logistical constraints dictated Bock’s infantry armies would have to halt east of Smolensk, and only a portion of his panzer forces were able to go farther forward and even then at great risk. Without any doubt, these realities reflected the most dangerous weakness in Plan Barbarossa, specifically, its calculations regarding logistical support necessary to sustain the campaign, whose explosive impact, which had previously been almost contemptuously ignored, was now being felt.
I left the last half of that last part in there because (spoiler for anyone who has not read the book) one of Glantz’s assertions is that the turn south with Guderian’s panzer group, far from being “the mistake which lost the war”, was actually a consequence of the inability to immediately advance on Moscow (due to large part to these logistical concerns) and was actually a reasonable decision and probably the right one at the time. Playing the game, you get a real appreciation for these realities. As we’ll discuss next time, my panzer spearheads are at the gates of Smolensk but are pretty much at the end of their rope. The idea of driving all the way to Moscow is complete fantasy, and the slow going in Ukraine is already tempting me to divert part of Army Group Center to slice southeast of Chernigov and pocket a whole mass of Red Army units. The turn south, given the entire game situation, makes sense, because despite my rapid progress so far in just two weeks, there is no way I am going to be able to sustain that rate of advance.
For all the casual bystanders out there, this is essentially a completely revisionist history compared to the one I learned as a kid watching the BBC’s The World at War series on PBS, where this German arrow was inexorably going, going, going towards Moscow and then BANG all of a sudden it turned right and surrounded Kiev and by the time everyone regrouped and got around to attacking Moscow again it was winter and the good guys won.
Before you get all crazy, I’m in no way asserting that War in the East proves anything about the BBC or Hitler or arrow trajectories in general. The assumptions inherent in the game design, rather than any objective truth, are what drive the game results. You could just as easily make a game where different assumptions and data make it impossible to capture Moscow for any reason. Then you would have Avalon Hill’s Stalingrad. But I’m really enjoying how War in the East constantly reminds me of points I’ve encountered in recent research I’ve read, like David Glantz’s latest book. That’s the kind of touching history I can appreciate.
In my own preparation for the inevitable turn south which is definitively proven by the incontrovertible scientific data contained in the War in the East historical real-life simulator, I’ve included a screenshot below which shows how I’ve encircled a few more Soviet troops in the Army Group South sector. You can spot them in the red circle, which indicates encirclement in the universal language of Photoshop. I feel like I’m biting tiny pieces off the Southwest Front, though, without making any significant progress towards Kiev. Next time we’ll see where that goes.
The next (and last scheduled) War in the East game diary will be not tomorrow, but Thursday, in order to let the panzers regroup. In the meantime, if you’re actually reading this and interested in seeing more War in the East game diaries, let me (or Tom) know, and I might be able to work in another week’s worth. You know, if anyone is reading.