Wednesday, 16 December 2020

Rommel in the Desert - Vassal (The Battle of Gazala 1942)


Following our first Vassal game of Columbia Games' Rommel in the Desert where we got into getting to grips with the rules in the scenario creating Operation Crusader, fought in the winter months of 1941, we moved on to the next sequential scenario, namely Gazala fought the following year in the summer of 1942.

Axis Order of Battle for The Battle of Gazala in May 1942.
The strength of each unit is at the top, with fourteen of my twenty-four carrying losses from the winter of 1941

For this game we swapped sides and I took the Axis forces, who having been pushed back from their siege of Tobruk at the end of the Crusader operation had fallen back towards Benghazi and El Agheila to rebuild over the winter of 1942, before pressing forward in May to resume matters with the Empire forces who had been similarly rebuilding and reinforcing their garrison of Tobruk.

Rommel in his personalised halftrack together with a command Panzer III oversee the fighting at Gazala in 1942

The scenario in Rommel in the Desert sets up in May with both sides having accumulated 30 Build up Points which they can spend on preparing their forces for the coming clash.

These points are used to move units from and back to the front from each sides respective main base at El Agheila and Alexandria, rebuilding damaged units from the previous campaign at various costs ranging from 3BP to put a strength point on an armoured brigade to just 1BP for a basic leg propelled infantry brigade and a whopping 15BP to place a minefield or 10BP to buy an extra supply card.

In the case of the Axis forces I chose to repair all my armour and German mechanised infantry, together with my anti-tank guns and artillery that had been damaged in Crusader back at base leaving me with no points to do anything else and thus forcing me to deploy elements of the 90th Light Division, together with the Afrika Korps Recon regiments and my Italian leg infantry up on the front line as illustrated in the map below.

Our game map at the start of play with Steve yet to place his Empire forces and with the Empire set up line indicated. Most of the Axis force is still refitting in El Agheila and will be rushed forward to support my forward screen, running from the coast out into the desert of Cyrenacia, in the first turn.

Of course the blind play of this game meant that I would not know what Steve would do with his points or how he would deploy other than along and to the east of the line of red hexes illustrating the Empire line at Gazala, and the blind play in all the Columbia block games is one of their strongest features.

Empire Order of Battle for Gazala.
Similarly to Axis, Empire forces are shown still in the process of rebuilding their units in May but ahead with just over half of their brigades back up to full strength and available to be deployed on the front line.

The Battle of Gazala would see the Empire forces wield a major new addition to their armoured strike force thanks to the entry of the USA into the war and President Roosevelt earmarking the latest deliveries of the M3 Lee tank, adapted by the British for desert use and renamed by them as the Grant, offering them the opportunity to field for the first time a tank capable of delivering an HE round against German softskins, infantry, and more importantly anti-tank guns, instead of relying on the BESA hull and turret mounted machineguns that had proved unsuitable for dealing with this menace.

In addition the Grant carried carried a 75mm main gun that as well as delivering an HE round could also deal very adequately with most of the German tanks and so although not ideal, being mounted in the hull with limited traverse, was a welcome addition for the Empire armoured brigades.

One of Eighth Army's new Grant tanks passes a knocked out Panzer I command vehicle during the fighting at Gazala in May-June 1942

As it turned out we both spent the best part of May 42 refitting the balance our units and bringing them to the front, spending our pool of supply points to do so, and with both of us aware of the importance in this game of looking for ways to hold on to as much of ones own precious supply points whilst the enemy fritters their own away we were being very cagey about throwing units into battle.

However the difference between playing this game, with the scenarios, and the full campaign game is that in the scenarios time is a much reduced commodity and for the Axis (24 units), that puts added pressure to attack and look to start eating away at the Empire order of battle (36 units), as the minimum victory conditions are to have more units on the board than the other chap to have caused them to pull back.

So rather like the historical battle I committed the Axis forces to their first attack on the Empire line just prior to us both passing, a situation which brings the current month to an end. Not wishing to spend too much supply but wanting to feel out the enemy positions as well as score some early kills, I pushed forward with a small battlegroup of Trieste mechanised infantry supported by German recon and Ariete armour finding Empire infantry and armour and pulling back after a short skirmish around Retima, suspecting other larger stacks behind were other Empire armoured units.

With just the month of June to conclude this game, both of us were now focussed on using our recouped supply cache for battle rather than long marches and, with hidden deployments and the defender getting to fire first, the distinct possibility to set up an ambush to create a battle that the other side may not wish to fight.

The battle at Bir Hacheim is indicated 'Active' at the close of play in June 1942, having drawn in much of the Empire line and with Axis supply spent, with just four dummy supply markers on the grey border at the top of the map. Empire supply was in a similar state.

Thus with a firm flank of Italian and 90th Light Division troops anchored against the coast I pushed forward an Afrika Korps anti-tank screen battle group of the 11th and 3rd FlaK brigades supported by two regiments of 90th Light Mechanised Panzergrenadiers into the Bir Hacheim hex hoping that Steve might take the bait by leading an attack with some of those armoured stacks I felt sure were close by.

With my line relatively short and with this battlegroup hanging out on the flank I was concerned that Steve might try to move around it before attacking so placed the Axis armour and further groups of mech infantry back behind it to refuse my flank and supporting my forward anti-tank screen.

Well Steve declined to flank and came into the Bir Hacheim hex with a mix of armour and infantry to find those 88mm guns and Panzergrenadiers as they revealed themselves and the German guns ripped into those Empire Grant tanks.

The battle lines at Bir Hacheim with the Empire armour badly battered by a combination of German tank and anti-tank fire, but equally the German Panzergrenadiers battered by Empire infantry and artillery fire.

The Empire force survived first contact with some units damaged but with the Axis force untouched and it is these kind of actions that force the players to make decisions about whether to stay and fight or to try and pull back all governed by the mobility of your force versus the enemy and the likelyhood of surviving pursuit fire, how much supply remains, what your enemy is likely to have left and in the case of a short scenario how much time remains.

Well both Steve and I were keen to force a decision point battle and the line up above shows the units still standing at the close as we both consumed what was left of our supply bringing more units to the fight and initiating battle.

As the last of the supply points were laid and both of us passed in June, ending the scenario, we both drew breath not knowing what the result was after the firing died down.

The points cost of remaining units were totted up with Italian and Empire brigade/regiments equating to one point each and the Afrika Korps one and a half points each.

The 'Destroyed Box' shows the units lost to both sides, effectively three Axis units to eight Empire based on points value

The Empire had lost eight units against two Afrika Korps units, equating to eight points versus three points lost. which left the totals at thirty-six points of Axis units on the board versus twenty-eight points of Empire units plus another two points to the Empire for holding an unbesieged Tobruk for a total Empire score of thirty points and an Axis attritional victory by six points.

Thus with two scenarios under our belt and our knowledge of how to play this game up to speed, we have decided to play the campaign game which combines the 1941 and 1942 scenarios and adds that other dimension of time alongside the other other great components of supply and unit management around the battles.

This is where I think the Vassal system will shine allowing as it does everything to be easily left and started again between games and we are looking forward to battling away up to the Christmas holiday.

More anon.

Next up, I take a look at a recent play through of Rolica 1808 from O'er the Hills, another book gets reviewed and the first exchanges of play in Steve and my Campaign game of Rommel in the Desert.

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