Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Trench Warfare Part 1: Pillbox Pointers

Matt Shostak

(a reprint from Banzai!! 2.3, April 1997 - The Newsletter of the Austin ASL Club)

This is the first in what I hope will be a series of articles dealing with fortifications. How many times have you skipped over a scenario because of the inclusion of too many fortifications? It is my hope that these articles will take some of the stigma away from these things. I claim no great expertise in their use; it might be best to treat these articles as just one man’s look at them.

The pillbox is one of those things that often sway one’s opinion against playing a given scenario. I think that this is largely because players, particularly beginners, are a bit intimidated by the rules governing their use, and also the tactics to employ. Since I am guilty of this myself, I decided to take a look at that rules section and write an article about pillboxes, with the goal of making them less mysterious and intimidating, for myself and (I hope) others. This is not intended as a rules primer on pillboxes. I am sure the readership is fully capable of reading the rules section in a short time. After all, it is only a little over a full page long. It is intended rather as a look at the implications of those rules and at tactics for their use.

Attacker Considerations

Let’s look first at the ways that a pillbox can be destroyed. It’s all neatly wrapped up in a single rule, B30.92. Here’s a list of things that are capable of eliminating a pillbox:

  • A demo charge original KIA
  • Non-area ordnance fire original KIA
  • Indirect fire critical hit of at least 70mm (vs. brown pillbox) or 100mm (vs. grey)
  • Falling rubble
  • Bombardment
  • Dozer

Note that for the first two, the KIA’s # must be at least equal to the TEM of the pillbox that applied to the attack. Demo charges, however, have that KIA number increased by two if placed or set (i.e. not thrown). What does that mean? A demo charge placed through a +3 facing of a pillbox would eliminate it on an original DR of 5 or less. Not bad. It would need an original DR of 3 or less to eliminate a pillbox through its +5 facing. For non-area ordnance, it’s a little harder because it doesn’t get the benefit of that increase in the KIA number. In practice, this means that the smallest ordnance that could eliminate a pillbox through a +3 facing (barring a critical hit) is 120mm, and it would need an original roll of snake eyes to do so. That doesn’t sound so easy. The other methods listed are much less likely to come up during play, so I won’t go into them here. It probably suffices to remember the methods only, and look up the details when necessary.

It appears then that pillboxes are fairly difficult to destroy outright. You rarely have a dozer on hand, and even large calibre guns only have a small chance. Demo charges can often be found, but as we all know it is difficult to get them close enough to do damage.

There is an important distinction, however, between destroying and defeating a pillbox. The former is certainly just a subcase of the latter. Perhaps then we should look at ways to defeat a pillbox that might not involve destroying it. A few things come immediately to mind:

  • Avoid it
  • Smoke it in
  • Eliminate the occupants

Clearly, a pillbox has a big weakness, and that is that it is blind outside its covered arc. If the pillbox is not placed well, then it can be easily bypassed by simply moving outside its covered arc. Of course, most opponents will strive to make that difficult to do, but still I would always look at ways to bypass it first, just in case my opponent made a mistake. When possible, this is the easiest way to defeat a pillbox. This can be especially effective against a pillbox containing a gun, because B30.45 prohibits any 5/8 inch counter from entering or leaving a pillbox except as a dm support weapon. Dropping a +3 smoke round right on top of the pillbox would go a long way toward blinding it completely, while OBA smoke is capable of putting a +6 hindrance or more on the occupants, thus completely blinding them. These first two methods, then, appear similar in concept. Eliminating the occupants is altogether different in style. This can be accomplished in a couple of ways:

  • Brute force IFT – Use firepower to break, double break, or KIA the occupants.
  • Close combat – Occupants of a pillbox suffer a +2 drm for ambush purposes.

There is a nifty rule, B30.35, that allows a firer to ignore the TEM of a pillbox if using AP/APCR/APDS and the basic TK # of that weapon is greater than twice that TEM. Although the HE equivalency is often low, the increased odds of hitting (and possibly getting Infantry Target Type critical hits once acquisition has been gained) are often worth the tradeoff. Consider the implications. If a tank’s kill number is high enough, it could park outside the covered arc of the pillbox (where it can’t be hit by any antitank gun therein, for example), and yet hammer the occupants repeatedly, without paying the TEM on the To Hit rolls. Although the HE equivalency of 75mm AP is only 2, from 6 or less hexes away, a tank would be hitting the infantry in the pillbox on an 8 or less if CE, 7 or less if buttoned up (provided no hindrances or other modifiers apply of course). After –2 acquisition has been gained, critical hits become relatively easy. An original 5 or less would be a critical hit from such a CE tank.

Probably the best method to defeat a pillbox is some combination of the above, depending on what units are available, the victory conditions (of course!), and the time available. Perhaps a tank could throw a smoke shell on the pillbox, while another tank hammers it with AP from outside its covered arc. Under this cover, infantry assault teams could move up armed with demo charges, and either blow it up or knock it out in CC.

Defender Considerations

Okay, now that we know how pillboxes can be defeated, let’s take a look at how they can be used effectively. This boils down to two things: where to put them and what to put in them. Naturally, victory conditions and terrain are paramount. Since their blind areas are such a big weakness, the first big consideration is to place them with a good field of fire, preferably on areas that your opponent really must traverse. This is much easier to accomplish in rural, open terrain than it is in city fighting. In a rural area, the +3 frontal TEM of the typical pillbox is often the best on the board, whereas in the city it’s just another stone building, albeit one with a restricted field of fire. Just what to put in them is a tough question, again largely dependent on the tactical situation. One thing seems clear however. Putting a 5/8 inch counter in there should be done only after careful thought, because such a gun cannot be moved out of the pillbox if it really needs to see something outside of the covered arc. Therefore it seems reasonable to avoid putting guns in pillboxes except in special circumstances. If the pillbox is the best terrain available, such as in a rural fight, it might be a good place for your best leader and machinegun. If it is not the best terrain, such as in a city fight, it might be more suited for a lesser unit, since good terrain abounds, and the restricted LOS might not be worth the trouble for your best unit.

There are a few special capabilities of pillboxes that are worth noting also, since they can affect how you use them.

  • Rout and Rally – Pillboxes are considered equivalent to a building for rout and rally purposes, and broken units therein are never forced to rout.
  • Concealment – Pillboxes are concealment terrain. Although such concealment never halves incoming firepower, nor add the +2 DRM to incoming To Hit shots, opponents are not allowed to inspect the contents of a pillbox except to verify details of an announced attack.
  • Bunkers – Set up in the same hex as a trench, or adjacent to a trench, a pillbox is considered a bunker. This allows units to enter/exit a trench more easily (see B30.8 for details). This capability can be used effectively to enable skulking by the occupants. Skulking is ASL slang for the tactic of moving (often assault moving) out of enemy LOS during the Movement Phase to avoid being shot at, then advancing back in during the Advance Phase to be ready to defend the same position again during the opponent’s turn.

Supporting a pillbox with other units is important as well. Placing units to cover areas outside of the pillbox’s covered arc will make it much more effective. Often when given a pillbox in your OB, you are also given several other fortifications. Wire, roadblocks, trenches, and mines can be set up in combination with a pillbox in order to make it more difficult to bypass and/or destroy. Wire and/or mines in the same hex as a pillbox will make it less susceptible to CC or a demo charge. Trenches, as we have noted, can make a pillbox into a bunker. If any tunnels are available in your OB (rare outside the PTO), you can connect tunnel to pillbox to further increase your mobility/flexibility/skulking. Perhaps a future article can bring together considerations for all the various fortifications in a combined defense. The philosophy of using pillboxes, I think, is to place them in areas that are difficult for the enemy to avoid. At the same time, make each pillbox difficult to destroy so that the enemy will be slowed considerably in his advance. You want to force the enemy to choose between two or more unattractive avenues of attack. He can either deal with the pillbox frontally, with all that entails, or he can try to avoid it and deal with your supporting units.

PTO Considerations

There are some special circumstances that come into play with regard to pillboxes in the Pacific Theatre. There seem to be a lot more of them in PTO scenarios, which I suppose makes sense given the way the Japanese fought. Pillboxes can be much more difficult to bypass in PTO scenarios, because they can remain HIP for much longer (see G.2). This can be offset, however, by the restricted LOS that is often prevalent in the PTO. The Japanese using pillboxes get some special capabilities, such as a free tunnel to go with every pillbox (G1.632).

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