War in the East: state of siege

, | Game diaries

The battle for Leningrad was one of the more horrific episodes in a war full of horrific episodes. At the same time, it’s a fascinating drama, full of intriguing angles. There’s the Finnish angle, where the Finns first declared war and then Carl von Mannerheim’s army basically stayed put for three years north of the city, resisting German pressure to launch an assault. The whole “Road of Life” across frozen Lake Ladoga is a ready-made movie script, and was the subject of numerous Soviet films. And the siege itself is an amazing catalog of events of both heroism and barbarism. So of course the most important philosophical, ethical, and historical problem this battle raises is: what kind of tires did the Russian ice trucks use, and are they properly modeled in the game?

After the jump, Leningrad or bust

The siege of Leningrad belongs to the pantheon of World War II stories which are sacred in a particular nation’s collective memory and little-known everywhere else, kind of like Katyn or the ’44 uprising are for the Poles. Treatments in English are pretty limited. The New York Times journalist Harrison Salisbury’s book The 900 Days was a sensation when it came out, but it’s completely from the Soviet perspective, and it was published in 1969. More recently, military historian Michael Jones wrote Leningrad: State of Siege, but the German advance on the city is limited to the 35 pages of chapter one. David Glantz’s book on the subject, The Battle for Leningrad: 1941-1944, came out about ten years ago. It’s the usual Glantz. In it, he quotes Charles von Luttichau’s The Road to Moscow

Though slower than earlier phases, progress was still measured in about twenty miles a day. The roads were abominable, leading through sand, bog, swamp, forest, and dense undergrowth, favoring at every turn the defender …

Leaving the road to Porkhov meant leaving the Twentieth Century for the Middle Ages. The tracks the Germans had to use had never seen a motor vehicle before. The German maps (on a scale of 1:300,000) were hopelessly out of date and completely wrong …

The weather was oppressively hot. The days in these northern regions were interminably long, and even the brief hours of semi-darkness brought little relief from the sweltering heat. The area was sparsely populated. Drinking water became a problem at the incredibly primitive settlements, but dug wells of up to one hundred feet provided excellent drinking water. To their surprise, the troops still found there was ice at the bottom.

I looked in the manual, but I couldn’t find anything about how the designers modeled ice water versus normal water for drinking by troops in northern Russia. Chalk it up to yet another glaring omission in a game that obviously has a long way to go before it can even approach the word “definitive.”

But it’s Friday, and I think it’s a good time to sit back and take in the landscape. The invasion is rolling along: in the crucial center, I’ve taken Vitebsk and am poised along the Dnepr to drive both north and south of Smolensk. I’m just waiting for the infantry to catch up. In the south, I’ve completed some encirclements as my panzers drive southeast against stiff opposition. And in the north, I’ve just taken Pskov. And have no idea what to do next.

It’s not like I don’t have historical guidance. Hitler actually gave Leningrad priority over Moscow as a target in the original Operation Barbarossa, but revised this later as more and more units from Panzer Group Four were detached to assist Army Group Center. The problem with Army Group North is that you just don’t have enough troops to begin with. The 56th Panzer Corps comprises two (!) non-infantry divisions. Leningrad is a heavily fortified target, so if your assault troops get there in depleted condition, they will have no chance of taking the city. It’s a difficult wargaming problem without a good solution. Thanks a lot, History.

What I ended up doing, as I mentioned in my original review, was to go back to Erich von Manstein’s Lost Victories, and read the chapter entitled “Panzer Drive” which detailed his command of 56th Panzer Corps. It was hard going, and at one point (at Zoltsy from 15-18 July) the entire panzer corps became encircled. After this crisis, von Manstein met with General Paulus of the Army High Command regarding a number of issues. On the subject of strategy, he had this to say.

I told Paulus that in my opinion the best thing to do would be to withdraw the entire Panzer Group from an area where a rapid assault was almost out of the question and to use it against Moscow. If, on the other hand, the idea of driving on Leningrad and executing a wide encircling movement through Chudovo were to be maintained, it was essential that infantry be made available. Once the wooded zone had been cleared, our own corps must be saved for the final thrust on the city, otherwise the mobile divisions would reach Leningrad in no fit state for fighting. In any case, I pointed out, such an operation would take time. If we wanted to gain swift possession of Leningrad and the coastline, the only thing to do was to concentrate the whole Panzer Group up north in the area east of Narva, whence it could drive straight for the city.

General Paulus entirely agreed with my views.

Von Manstein wrote his book in 1955, so he had plenty of hindsight to determine that whatever the original plan was, it didn’t work out so well in the end. Paulus, of course, ended up surrendering the trapped Sixth Army at Stalingrad, was captured, and lived out the brief rest of his life in postwar East Germany. So having him sign off on your plan to capture a major Russian city is kind of like having Jimmy Carter sign off on your plan to rescue some hostages. I know you’re just mentally substituting a Bush joke in there. No worries: it’s all good.

But as it turns out, after going over and over the options for an advance on Leningrad, I have to agree with the old field marshal. The Pskov-Luga-Leningrad axis is wooded, swampy, crosses several rivers, and is heavily defended. The route through Estonia is lightly defended and has more clear terrain. The problem is that it leaves me with a completely open right flank, and the frontage moving north of Lake Peipus is so narrow that it will be hard to avoid getting bottled up. But if you’re making one bid to capture Leningrad before the winter comes, that’s pretty much the way to go. I’m not saying that the game is some amazing strategic simulation of what could and should have happened on the eastern front, but the evidence sure is piling up.

To illustrate, I’ve included a screenshot, with arrows.

The red line depicts the German advance. The blue line depicts the proposed von Manstein advance, which I independently determined makes much more sense in game terms. I’ve sent 41st Panzer Corps north, while 56th Panzer Corps will hold Pskov until infantry can arrive. It’s the same problem I have in Army Group Center: the infantry has been left far behind while the motorized troops push the limits of my ability to keep them supplied and not encircled.

So that’s where we stand. It’s still the 3 July turn, which I have almost finished doing. I’ll leave you with this extended excerpt from Barbarossa Derailed, which dovetails nicely with the whole “lagging infantry” theme.

This “catch-up effort” required the two armies’ infantry columns to move eastward by forced march through oppressive and nearly tropical heat and suffocating clouds of dust. Advancing relentlessly to overtake the panzers, the worn out and overburdened men and horses trudged along the dreary, deeply rutted trails that passed for roads. As the soldiers and officers described it, this march was a bone-crushing yet necessary effort. Experiencing firsthand the monotony of the land stretch endlessly to the east, Major General Lothar Rendulic, a division commander who rose to army group command later in the war, recorded his Landsers [infantrymen -bg] impressions as they struggled through the vast oppressiveness of Belorussia. A poor region whose sandy soil produced only marginal crops of oats and potatoes, the area was strewn with patches of heavy woods punctuated by villages made up of wooden or adobe houses with thatched roofs and brick schools and government buildings. Unable to escape from clouds of mosquitoes breeding in swamps adjacent to every river, lake, and stream, the soldiers were plagued by their assaults, particularly at sunset and at night, as well as by the teeming vermin in every village. Marching in column along side roads, the infantry divisions stretched for a distance of up to 32 kilometers, and it took up to 24 hours to cross major rivers, even without enemy interference:

Continuously the troops marched in thick clouds of dust that rose beyond the rooftops of houses, from the powder surfaced road, suspended, trapped by the walls of trees of the forest on either side of the road, which blocked any movement of air. Soon the trees themselves were covered by a grayish-white layer, leaving no trace of green. faces were masked by a heavy coating of dust, distorted to the point of non-recognition.

One of the most serious problems for the infantrymen was the lack of water since, although the shallow wells in the villages sustained the local population, they were wholly inadequate to quench the thirst of a million and a half men and hundreds of thousands of horses. Nor was the water safe to drink without first boiling it and then purifying it with chlorine. While the intense heat forced the soldiers to march and fight bare-chested, nature provided some relief during thunderstorms, when the troops could bathe, and the lakes permitted them to swim. Although he decried the lack of lightweight safari shirts, which at the time were supplied only to the Afrika Korps, Hoth was also concerned lest such laxity in attire adversely affect unit discipline.

Again with the wells — it’s looking more and more like a serious design omission. And I’ve gone through all the unit data available in the game and still cannot determine which, if any, of these infantry divisions are bare-chested. My disappointment with the game’s verisimilitude increases daily.

Next time: Baba Yaga’s hut
Click here for the previous War in the East game diary.