German: Nick Drinkwater [ELR 4, SAN 2]
Russian: Tom Gillis [ELR 4 SAN 2]
In what turned out to be my final ASL game in Houston, Tom and myself faced off in this nice little meeting encounter from the Rally Point pack of scenarios. I was officially in transit between the USA and Angola, living in a hotel room in South Houston with one wife and two black cats, as our house was now empty and all our belongings had been packed away ready for shipping and storage. In this strange netherworld existence with a ton of cowboys, rednecks, pig pokers, mutton busters and other rodeo participants, I thought my chances of any more ASL were effectively nil. But then, to my surprise and at very short notice, Mrs D announces she has arranged lunch followed by a spa visit for something female and alien called a "mani-pedi" and that I was hence free to entertain myself and not get in the way of important girl-stuff.
So then, I have 8 hours of 'Nick-time' to kill in Houston - I know, let's call Mr G and see if he's up for some ASL...and bingo, yes he is! As I am sans all ASL gear, I leave it to Tom to make the scenario choice and he came up trumps as always with this excellent 5.5 turn job from the Rally Point packs. What was nice and different about this scenario was that it was a meeting engagement on Boards 44 and 17 and that no set-up defense was required. Instead the Russian strike force (7 x T34M43 and 2 x SU-85 with 10 very lightly armed squads) entered first to which the German response force (3 Panthers, 2 x MkIVs, 2 half-tracks and 7 landser squads) would manoeuvre to counter them. To win the Russians needed to exit 30VP off the German entry board edge, but interestingly this would drop by 3CVP for each Panther that was destroyed.
The game was played across the width of the two boards so the Russians have a very broad front to manoeuvre in but their exit corridor is restricted to within the D and DD hexrows of the board edge to keep the Russian assault centered and stop board edge creeps. On the German half of the play area, two small hill overlays provide opportunities for the Germans to get hulldown with their Panthers and also to funnel the Russian attacks into three corridors - down the middle between the two hills, or left or right of the two hills, or some combination therein. As the Germans come on second, they get the luxury of being able to see which way the Russians are aiming for and respond and apportion their forces accordingly. The problem for both sides is that to simulate poor road conditions, all AFV must use an extra 1/2 MP for each open ground or road hex they enter - the impact of this is to stop the Russian tanks from moving across a whole of board 17 in Turn 1 and hence deny the Germans the two hills. However, this also makes German AFV entry setup critical as you really need to plan those turn 1 moves carefully to make sure you achieve the optimum positions. Interesting conundrums here.
Other issues we both needed to be aware of were the TK numbers of our tanks - my being outnumbered almost 2:1 was equalled by the fact that any hit by a Panther guaranteed instant death (TK of 23 vs 11 AF), but Tom's weaker guns (13 and 17TK) were going to need a lot of help or APCR (14 and 19TK respectively) to dent my Panthers in return. Clearly, the MkIV vs T34 matchup was marginally more favorable for Tom (17 TK vs 11 AF as opposed to 13TK vs 6 AF), but ideally he was going to need to be in flank or side shot positions for kills - something that might be harder for Tom to achieve than normal due to the movement point restrictions. In terms of morale, Tom's infantry were either the par of (4-4-7) or better than mine (4-5-8) and more numerous (10 squads vs. 7) and he had one more leader than I did, but of course, I have lots of that lovely late war German tank-killing goodness (and a Shrek) so the Russians better beware. In return, I was more MG-rich than him, and with the two half-tracks, I had some mobile firemen too to rush in and plug any gaps that may appear in the defense. All in all, this is very much a really equal match of more numerous Russians against technically superior but outnumbered Germans - something that was apparently quite common in Eastern Europe in the middle of 1944 or so I understand.
Tom opted for a "he can't defend everything, everywhere" approach which ended up consisting of a schwerpunkt of rider-bearing T34s down each flank while the assault guns pushed up the middle - in an early sign of the way this was going to go, two of Tom's 4-5-8 riders failed orchard-enforced bailouts which also saw the demise of their sole ATR. Other riders merely pinned but Tom was still pushing on nicely, despite the restrictions of the poor ground quality - being aware of CE status to improve MP benefits on roads is critical in this scenario.
Faced with this broad punch attack, I opted to utilise the two hills to match Tom's attacks as best I can, but plan carefully for position and use the hills to my advantage. Each small hill received a Panther and MkIV wingman plus infantry support, after attempting but failing to get hull-down advantage with the Panthers. The spare Panther plus the two half-tracks went into the middle to be a reserve force that could be used where needed. On the right flank, the MkIV sat in the brush between two woods to keep any Russian tanks that felt like being a bit frisky in a deadly cross-fire.
My turn 1 manoeuvring meant that I had one T-34 on the left flank stuck in a hole with nowhere to go - scratch one T-34 from long-range Panther gunnery. The position of the Panther on the right hand hill meant that Tom's T-34s over there had to manoeuvre away from the deadly 75LL Gun, but this put him in the cross-hairs of my MkIV. Feeling confident that I would get one of the T34s in defensive fire, Tom responded with one of those classic Gillisian throwaway shots, rolling a bounding fire improbable critical and that was the end of my MkIV. So at the end of Russian Turn 2, it was 1 vs 1 on tank knockouts - killer. This one was a jaw dropper I can tell you.
On the left flank, on the appearance of the Panther, the T34 gaggle over there swerved right (like a school of minnows fearing the approach of a barricuda) and tried to manoeuvre through woods and along the side of the left hand hill. However, again the MP restrictions came out to bite Tom again as he could get past my behemoths far enough to get rear shots and enforce more turret spin penalties on me. At the same time, Tom tried to repeatedly run some infantry up to my forward Panther and fix his attention with some CC threats, but they ended up riddled by landser, CMG and BMG bullets. In my return shots on Turn 2, my MkIV spun and knocked out one of his T-34s with a tasty side shot and the Panther then addled insult to injury by spinning and then destroying the second T34 on a flukey intensive fire shot. A bit lucky but it was definitely needed as I was about to be swamped.
I thought that this effectively stopped Tom's attack on the left side for a while, him being reduced to infantry probes which my scant defenders could easily delay for the time being. But of course, it wouldn't be Tom unless he had some death and glory moments, and so he pushed on with yet another T-34 and out of nowhere pulled out another bounding fire shot (one where I chose not to DFF as I thought he'd never get me with bounding fire) and whacked my MkIV from behind. A bit of poor play by me and another real choker. 3 vs 2 on tank kills, but still no Panthers dead yet.
However, things shortly afterwards got even uglier when, having failed to find 85L APCR, Tom found another snakes from a bounding fire AP shot on my left hand Panther - we thought this was a miss, but just at the last moment, he remembered this was his 8-1 AL which made the shot a hit instead of a miss...the second of Tom's throwaway miracle hits in the game and I was down my third tank - and critically he only needed to get 27CVP off for the win. 3 vs 3 on tank deaths and I'm now even more horribly outnumbered. This was definitely the ugly point of the game for me. Unreal - all my left hand side armour was dead, two T-34s were over there to take advantage of this and they only really needed to worry about low odds, long-range faust shots now.
On the right flank, the early loss of the MkIV had upset my plan and Tom was now locally 4:1 up in tanks on me - this was not good and unless I reinforced, Tom might easily sacrifice a T34 to take on my Panther and then run 2 or 3 of his other tanks off, and at 8CVP a piece, he could be over half-way or better to his VC by the end of Turn 3. So, my reserve Panther had rumbled over there to help out and keep the Russians in an ugly cross-fire position. This meant the middle part of the board was effectively open to a run by Tom's SU-85s but they might still be taking some shots at long range from the Panthers if they dared to.
Tom, ever the optimist, tried to do just this and switched the direction of his attack. A couple of infantry squads made a mad open ground and drew fire from my few right-hand defenders and this opened a gap for a T-34 to make a dash, free of fausts. He almost pulled it off as well as my Panther missed with his first shot, but with a very brave intensive fire attempt, I toasted him from behind on his last hex before exit. It was a huge moment in the game and I had to think long and hard as a broken Panther gun would have been catastrophic, and Tom had played this one really well putting all the really hard decisions back on to me - the best thing you can do as the attacker. But I got lucky, Tom didn't, and it paid off handsomely for me for once.
Still, I wasn't out of the fire yet. My ground level Panther was all shot out, and only my eastern hill Panther was still alive and un-fired - using another T-34, he manoeuvred onto the hill to force me to spin, and afraid of a BFF shot from the side by the Russian, I fired off and missed. However, in another critical moment, I kept rate and managed to roast him on extra MP to scratch my second T-34 of the turn - another huge moment and it was now 5 vs 3 on tank casualties. Then, in probably the biggest move of the entire game, I risked all and intensive fired the Panther yet again and mashed the motion SU-85 that had swung into my sights in the central play area, armour leader and all. A very risky shot, but my gunnery was good, my luck was in and I was riding it bareback!! This was all pretty gruesome for Tom - he had tried every manoeuvring trick in the book and pushed me really hard on all the tough decisions, but at the end of it all, I still had both Panthers left at the cost of three smokin' Russian wrecks. Three intensive fire choices and three kills...huge risks but huge payoffs!
This left a lot for Tom to do, but he wasn't out of the game yet - he still had three tanks left and if he got all three off, all he needed to run off from his infantry was a squad and a half, a task that probably wouldn't be too hard as there was a big exit area and not many defenders to cover it. Tom managed to get one T-34 off past some flailing impotent faust attempts, but his other SU-85 went down to more long range Panther gunnery. Finally his last T-34 was surrounded by landsers and disappeared in a puff of faust smoke. Game over and a convincing win for the men from Munich.
I really liked this scenario, obviously helped by the fact that my dice were hot and shooting sure, but it is a rare example of a meeting scenario where tank manoeuvring is the king. Apart from the Panther shots, there are no sure kills for the all the other tanks and we both suffered several dull 'thonks' from bouncing AP rounds, all of which is part of the beauty of this design, and quite rare for a 1944 eastern front setting. The Germans need to work hard for their positions and to make their tank superiority count, but you do really feel the pressure when one of your precious panzers goes down. The Russians have options here, but the fact that the German's move second, means that much chess-like move and counter move will be happening here. Even if the Russians go with a super big punch, the Germans can easily plan to defend against this and the soft ground conditions mean that re-positioning to try a different approach or defense route gets a bit trickier. Very much recommended and one for armour aficionados everywhere.
That's it from a warm and balmy Luanda. Hope all of you have good gaming while I'm gone! I'm off to the beach for a beer...!