Tuesday, 13 November 2012

ST SOUBAIN SHOOTOUT First Normandy Play Test AAR

Last week was a chance to give a first run-out to the forthcoming Battlegroup supplement for France 1944, and dust-off my long languishing American armoured forces. The scenario would a meeting engagement, with my forces advancing to capture the small hamlet of St Soubain, hidden amidst some dense bocage country, as the Germans also moved in to occupy it. There were three objectives, in the village, on a tall hill in the northwest corner and an orchard on the outskirts of the hamlet.

My battlegroup of 2nd Armoured Division consisted of: a Sherman Platoon of 4 tanks (1 under strength), an armoured infantry platoon, an M10 tank destroyer, M16 AA halftrack, led by my commander in an M20 armoured car, a forward air controller in a jeep (fortunes of war please send me a P-47!), a M7 Priest battery of 3 guns with an attendant ammo supply truck, plus a single 3rd priority artillery request (to make up the points). 

The Germans of 2nd SS Panzer would be rolling into town with: a Panzer IV squadron of 3 tanks, veteran armour panzer grenadier platoon in their 251s, a 251/9, a Modelwagen, a mortar halftrack, a 120mm team, a forward aid post, and their commander in his little Kubelwagen.  They also had a 250 recce halftrack out front (the US had no reconnaissance, just big guns).

The game began with the German 250 racing off at full tilt cross-country and climbing up the steep hill, through the woods, to reach the top, claim the objective and have a grandstand view as the battle unfolded below them. After this, they played no further part in the fighting ( i think he forgot about them!).

The German forces followed on behind, Panzer IVs and halftracks moving into the village to occupy it first. The Americans sent in their Shermans first, a column of tanks in single file winding through the very dense terrain. Routes of advance were limited, and the going was slow, but as yet they weren’t under fire. My armour infantry followed on, with the M16 at the rear of the column. Meanwhile, one German Panzer IV, forcing a hedgerow, hit an uncleared mine on the verge and was knocked out. First blood to the US, no shots fired!

The German grenadiers began to occupy the village buildings, MG teams and squads in buildings, whilst one squad and the 251/9 moved right through the village and out onto the German right (US left flank). There they were soon in a stand-off with my M10, neither showing themselves, but all lurking with deadly intent (my M10 would surely win that fight). On my board edge the entire M7 battery arrived, and immediately opened up an harassing bombardment of Area Fire onto the buildings they could just see through the trees and foliage. As the salvo of 105 rounds slammed home, one half-timbered building collapsed and the grenadier squad within was wiped out. So far, so good (unless that was your house of course).

 The hamlet of St Soubain, being well occupied by the Germans.
The German defences were quickly in place, one squad hiding the bocage in front of the village, MG and 251 either side, and a PzIV rolling forwards to join them. It went onto ambush fire facing the orchard, now being occupied by disembarking US armoured infantry. The first Sherman to nose-up to the opposite hedgerow instantly caught two 75mm AP shells and blew sky-high, my first loss on turn 4.

My commander, acting as my artillery observer, was now in place and the Priests cut loose on the village, screaming in rounds. One scored a direct hit on the Modelwagen and it was destroyed. A few pinned infantry units were all the other damage inflicted on the enemy. 

Meanwhile, I had sent one Sherman to cautiously nose-up a sunken lane through a large area we had designated as impassable bocage to everything but infantry. As the Sherman rounded the lane's corner, unfortunately a PzIV was waiting, and its gun hit at short range, but only glanced off – phew. The crew were pinned by the lucky escape though.

I used tactical co-ordination to get that Sherman back in the fight and return fire before I lost it next turn, which would also block the lane into the village. Having pulled a '5' battle counter I then rolled a 1, and in a double whammy the Sherman crew remained pinned. Unsurprisingly it didn’t survive the next turn’s incoming AP fire and the Ronson lit up!

One of the two routes into the village was now blocked with burning metal, although I send one infantry squad off to work their way through the jungle-like vegetation. They soon encountered MG fire from the village and became pinned themselves. The other route was to be my main attack, but ferocious firepower and a tank waiting on ambush meant that to start out my attack without first pinning these units would be suicidal. Instead, my GIs held their cover behind the orchard walls, lashed by MGs using area fire and getting pinned. The other two Shermans lurked further back, ready to spring fowards only when the ‘Go!’ order was finally issued (in the end in never came, events elsewhere sunk that planned attack).

Meanwhile, on my left, my flank protection of a single M10 was doing a fine job, until I moved it to sqeeze a cheeky side-shot at the Panzer IV that had killed my lead Sherman. At which point the M10 broke down, and the crew bailed and ran. Seeing a gilt-edged chance, the Germans immediately pushed the formerly skulking 251/9 forwards, to a firing position where it could clearly see my three Priests (still lobbing shells into St Soubain). The haltrack’s first shot pinned an M7, and the surprised artillery men suddenly found themselves in a tank battle, as the Pz IV began firing on them too (but missing). Suddenly, all my main attack's supporting artillery fire was cancelled as the Priest had to fight back (badly). In the next turns, one was knocked out by the /9’s HE fire, another smashed by the Pz IV. It looked grim, I was very stuck. Then, by good fortune, salvation arrived! Finally an air-attack counter came my way and, with my FAC on the radio, a P-47 swooped in. First target was the dangerous Pz IV shooting at my Priests, which instantly exploded in a hail of 5” rockets. Fear the Jabo!

Actually don’t, because in both its next two attack runs the P-47 pilot failed to spot his target and no attack was made, just buzzing the village at low level (which was no doubt wreathed in smoke from the fires started by the earlier shelling). With no artillery or air support I could do nothing about the firepower still lashing out of the village, or the two mortars hammering down on the walled orchard and hedges, and my pinned men in the orchard just hunkered down, unaware of why their own artillery had stopped firing. When my single probing infantry squad was wiped out by combined infantry and MG fire, I was done. St Soubain was obviously firmly in German hands, so the two Shermans, the last M7 Priest and my GIs fell back. No breakthrough today.

German losses from the engagement had been: 2 Panzer IVs, a Modelwagen, and about 12 infantry.
US losses had been: 2 Shermans, an M10, 2 M7s and about 15 infantry. Notable, no Sherman tank had fired a single shot, most hadn’t risked showing themselves to waiting German guns.

A solid German win then, but in my defence, the terrain was very tight, both routes forward were well covered and all shooting was short ranges and lethal. Getting into the village against all those MGs (man-carried and 251 mounted) was a tough ask for my infantry. The horribly unlucky loss of my M10, which was doing an important job, cost me best hope of victory - my ferocious artillery firepower, because the Priests then had to look to their own defence. Also, my aircraft was, well pretty rubbish!

It was a very different game from all the Kursk battles I’ve played over the past year, much more 'cat-and-mouse', much more cautious (especially by me), and far more use of ambush fire to deny enemy the freedom of movement in the few routes of advance. So, more like Normandy then... its enough to make you long for some wide open space to fight in!

Only have a couple of shots of this one from a phone, as I forgot to take my camera to the game! Still, proof it did happen, if nothing else.

The walled orchard, the jump-off position for my main attack, that never happened. Note Shermans behind awaiting to force the hedge and advance in support. The M3s are stuck on the lane, just out of shot is a burning Sherman, blocking it. 

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