Wednesday, 13 January 2021

Rommel in the Desert - Campaign Game with Vassal


So just before the close of play last year, Steve and I decided to finish off 2020 with the full campaign game of Rommel in the Desert (RITD) which combines the 1941 and 1942 scenarios into a two year campaign by linking the orders of battles and checking for supply and build up points from month to month in effect twenty turns of play that covers the period encompassing, The retreat from Benghazi, Operation Crusader, Gazala, First and Second Alamein if you get that far.

Empire Set Up April 1941 with the Tobruk garrison of five units plus some extra infantry operating in the outskirts and my forward units of Neame's battered and worn XIII Corps

Out of preference to the way I like to play, I would probably err towards playing Afrika Korps and the Axis, but we decided to roll for sides and I took the Empire forces.

This is a game that Steve and I had discussed many times as one we would like to play using the board game with time permitting and room to leave it set up, and so Vassal really makes playing this longer variant so much more 'doable' in that we were able to play through for three nights over three weeks, saving and coming back to the game in between.

Empire Order of Battle for the Campaign Game, less the set up units which are illustrated above in the placement I opted for at the start before Steve started the Axis forces rolling forward from El Agheila

As will be surmised from the orders of battle in the two shots from the game set up, the advantage in numbers and quality lie with the Axis in 1941 and early 1942 and for the Empire player it is not simply a case of hanging on, but one of looking for opportunities to degrade the Axis order of battle by writing down Afrika Korps units in particular, whilst not paying too high a price to do so, knowing better quality units and lots of them will arrive in the later period.

The Axis Order of Battle, very much front loaded with some excellent Afrika Korps units, but starting to dry up as the war progresses into late 1942

In addition to managing the battle situations, the Empire forces, in particular, have to know when to trade space for time, ideally leaving well reinforced garrisons in Tobruk and Bardia with effective defences, better supported with mines if possible, thus stretching the Axis supply line if they advance past those garrisons and allowing the Empire to shorten their supply and logistics route to Alexandria at the same time.

Of course if the Empire forces fall back too soon without drawing Axis units forward in their wake, they run the risk of leaving the garrisons to be overwhelmed before relief forces can reach them and if the Axis get control, particularly of Tobruk in 1941, it could be a very long game for the Empire.

The set up for 1941 recreates the battered and worn Empire units fresh from their success under General Richard O'Connor having defeated the Italian Tenth Army during Operation Compass between September 1940 to February 1941, seeing them capture 130,000 prisoners, 400 tanks and 1,292 guns, but leaving the Empire troops exhausted and regrouping near Beda Fomm with forward elements patrolling towards the Italian supply base of El Agheila, and much weaker after having a veteran cohort of the force siphoned off by Churchill for operations in defending Greece and Crete.

Enter the Afrika Korps under a relatively unknown German general, Erwin Rommel, who not prepared to sit back and wait for his total force allocation to arrive, plunged off into the blue with his first units of armour and reconnaissance troops that clashed with and then rolled back the weak Empire forces before them in April, starting the first part of what became commonly known to the British 'Tommies' as the 'Benghazi Handicap' as opposing forces raced each other along the North African coastal highway to be the first to the next potential choke point before Tobruk.

Empire Retreat April 1941 - Turn 1
Empire rear-guard forces do an excellent job delaying the Axis advance and inflicting annoying casualties, whilst forcing them to burn vital supplies in the advance to Tobruk

In anticipation, from the Ultra intercepts I had been receiving, I planned for my inevitable retreat to be more ordered than that achieved by Lieutenant General Phillip Neame commanding XIII Corps and placed small units of motorised and lorried infantry supported by the odd battered remnants of cruiser tanks from 2nd Armoured Division at choke points such as Benghazi and the coastal corridor through the mountains of the Jebel el Akhdar and south of them on the desert track at Mechili, to act as speed bumps.

I could not hope to stop the Axis units coming up the road towards me but by occupying positions that were far enough away, such as Mechili to force supply point expenditure to get there or in places like Benghazi and its fortifications together with limited access reducing the number of Axis forces that could attack at any one time, the plan was to fight and withdraw, hoping for the manoeuvrability, and/or armour of my troops to give them an element of protection from pursuit fire, but enabling me to delay the Axis and build up my forces in and around Tobruk.

Axis consolidate whilst Empire reinforce from Alexandria May 1941 - Turn 2

As my rear-guard forces fell back before Tobruk in May 41, the delaying tactics seemed to have paid off with two highly valuable Afrika Korps units in the destroyed box alongside three of my battered remnants and a more valuable brigade from 70th Division, caught up in the retreat from Mechili, but a reasonable trade off that allowed me to build up supply and manpower as the Axis spent theirs in the pursuit.

Destroyed Axis and Empire units April-May 1941
Those two Afrika Corps units, more than made up for the loss of my three remnants and the lorried infantry brigade from 70th Division.

As the Empire forces fell back on Tobruk and later towards the Egyptian frontier, both sides drew breath and pulled forward their reinforcements, which saw a formidable stack of Axis troops advancing around Tobruk as the Empire had the fortune of the early arrival of several full strength cruiser tank brigades, plus spending fifteen 'build up' points to build minefields in and around the Tobruk defences.

Our previous warm up games playing Crusader and Gazala had taught both of us the lesson to be wary of charging in on stacks unprepared and the value of all arms attacks to cover those eventualities, but the pressure for the Axis to make hay in those early months ensured the attacks that came in during June, July, August and September as we both fought in the sands south of Tobruk on the frontier, attempting to weaken the other enough to enable either the Axis to assault Tobruk without hinderence or face being driven back to regroup from losses sustained in the fighting.

End June 1941, Axis lay siege to Tobruk - Turn 3
An ominously large stack of Axis units hovers south of Tobruk, looking to force events on the Egyptian frontier south of Bardia

In the end the fighting close to Bardia proved too much for the Empire troops, having called in reserves from Bardia itself only to see the Axis rush troops forward to occupy the key town and then to smash the Empire armour units in a very large drawn out battle near Fort Capuzzo as both sides increased their forces committed that broke the Empire force sufficiently to cause a general withdawal back to Alexandria and the Alamein line at the end of November.

The start of the Battle of Fort Capuzzo as the lead elements engage, that would see the Axis victorious and the Empire forced back to El Alamein in November 1941.

The really great part of playing the full campaign is that it forces the players to think ahead and not just on the battle in front of them during a two or three month scenario.

In the campaign, decisions have to be made when to call an end to the combat, to allow the opportunity to get key forces away from the battle to hopefully be rebuilt alongside newly arrived reinforcements; and leaving those forces as rear-guards to die, unable to escape multiple attacks in pursuit is sometimes not an option, but the decision to fall back from the frontier to Alexandria was a difficult one.

Destroyed Axis and Empire units End Nov 1941
This screen-shot tells the tale as to why the Empire forces had to fall back to Alexandria and leave Tobruk to fend for itself in January 1942

The decision put the ball very much in the Axis court and Steve found himself having to decide whether to pursue the Empire towards El Alamein with Tobruk behind and on his supply line and all the problems of the length of the route causing to his own supplies and reinforcements, but with the opportunity, should the Alamein line be broken, to end the North African campaign in 1941; or to make use of the breathing space to turn the full force of the Axis against Tobruk and deal with the problem in time for the next campaign in 1942.

End November 1941Tobruk under siege and Empire back on the El Alamein Line - Turn 8
A difficult decision at the time, but the Empire had to fall back to Alamein if it were to stand any chance of holding on into 1942

Steve chose the later option and so January 1942 saw the Battle for Tobruk as Axis troops braved shell, shot and mine to attempt to batter their way into the city as the Empire reserves desperately rebuilt and regrouped alongside the new arrivals to rush along the coast road to Bardia, with not much hope of closing on Tobruk before February 1942.

The minefield placement in Tobruk in May proved a wise investment and the Empire infantry together with support from their 25-pounders chewed up the Axis attacks in the first rounds of combat, but Steve was committed to the offensive and threw in the reserves, reducing the defenders to a single artillery brigade with one strength point left before the Axis were compelled to withdraw through lack of supplies to support more attacks; 'a close run thing' as the Duke would have called it!

As the Axis battered themselves against the defences of Tobruk, the Empire reserves rushed up to Bardia and with the Axis frontier stripped of troops investing Tobruk, assaulted back into the town and rounded up the German infantry left to hold it, later laying mines around it before advancing on Tobruk with a large force of mechanised infantry, armour and artillery to Gambut on the coast road below the Sidi Rezegh escarpment as January drew to a close.

End January 1942 - Turn 10
The battle to take Tobruk was a close run thing but the Empire just held on as their reserves rushed forward from Alexandria to retake Bardia 

The choice of positioning the main Empire relief force at Gambut was deliberate in that it both supported Tobruk and Bardia, enabled reinforcements to make their way in to replace the losses in Tobruk and being on the coast below the Sidi Rezegh escarpment limited any Axis attack to just two routes in, thus limiting the numbers that could engage at any one time.

With the Axis forces busy sorting themselves out at Gazala, the crisis of our campaign had been reached with the beefed up units of Eighth Army due to arrive in the summer including the new Grant tank brigades, Steve would have to force the issue around Tobruk now.

The fighting in January and the subsequent losses together with the Empire reinforcements had seen a shift in the balance and now the Axis were hard pressed to attack Tobruk whilst preventing those forces from being attacked, but, having the advantage to move first, moved immediately back into the attack on Tobruk, whilst placing a blocking force between the city and the Empire reserves at Gambut on the coast road at Belhamed.

However the Gambut forces were composed of armoured and mechanised troops supported with artillery and anti-tank guns, so that as the reinforced garrison in Tobruk now sporting a brigade of Matilda infantry tanks in support held the Axis attack, the forces at Gambut fell on both the Axis blocking force and were also able to put units into the Torbruk area thus splitting the fire of the Axis units there.

End February 1942 - Turn 11 and they think it's all over, well it is now! The Axis forces fall back from Tobruk for the last time

The fighting in Tobruk and directly outside it at Belhamed proved too much of a stretch for the Axis units left and with supplies dwindling and the Afrika Korps armour bled white together with numerous other support units now destroyed, they fell back to Gazala.

A quick look at the 'Dead Pool' at the end of February 1942 shows the comeback the Empire made in the first two months of the year with numerous Axis units written down in and outside Tobruk in the bitter battles for possession of the town.

Destroyed Axis and Empire units End Feb 1942 and Game End

At turn twelve with the first Grant tank brigade to arrive and another eighteen Empire brigades in the next six months, with next to nothing for the Axis we decided that Rommel would be looking to fall back to Tunis from here and so called the game.

The campaign lived up to all our expectations with all the added drama of retreats, build ups, pursuits and massive battles in between the twelve months of campaigning, as we worked our way through, and RITD is a definite favourite and one I'm sure we will return to again.

Thanks to Steve M who played a great game as Field Marshal Rommel and produced a real cut and thrust contest with the Empire driven back to Alexandria in December 1941, eight months earlier than his historical counterpart managed and came within a battery of 25-pounders of also emulating the German general by nearly taking Tobruk the following month.

Next up - Lots of stuff in the pipeline; The Leeward Line scenario continues using War by Sail as Collingwood's British division of ships comes broadside to broadside with Admiral Alava's and Magon's Franco-Spanish division, plus Steve and I managed to squeeze in a Vassal game of Columbia Games' Richard III as we played the campaign game between Xmas and New Year, and later I have six French 3rd rates on the stocks in a slightly different Revolutionary War livery and an interestingly different Age of Sail book that I'm reading at the moment to review a bit later.

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