Eastern Front Strategy: Part One - On The Defensive
||Eastern Front Strategy: Part One
On The Defensive
by Shan Palmatier
Much has been written about the relative merits of the German versus Soviet interaction in Flames Of War, but very little on actual tactics for surviving the merciless Eastern Front. This article is intended as a starting point for those wishing to game the Germans versus Soviets in World War Two.
Read Part Two: Taking The Offensive here...
|Too Big to Fail
The most basic fact of the Eastern Front, and one that neither side can ever really get away from, is that the Soviets use Company-sized units, while the Germans use platoons. Against this, Germans are superior in training and skill, mobility, and sometimes technology.
Soviet combat companies are super-large, often super-motivated units which will be anywhere from twice to six times the normal size of a German platoon. Although German platoons are vastly superior in quality, they simply cannot stand one on one against this numerical disadvantage.
|A typical infantry example of a Too Big To Fail Soviet unit would
be a full Strelkovy (3 platoons), plus Anti-tank rifles, Sappers,
Flame-Throwers, and/or the Battalion HQ. This gives the unit amazing
resilience and vastly superior morale. It also breaks the bank at
between 565 and 700 points. Combating this amount of sheer brute force
requires the German player to take steps to keep his platoons from being
overwhelmed by superior numbers at the point of attack.
This is a contest of extremes. Soviets tend to start the game with a
massive numeric advantage, and can use this to dominate if they can
force close quarters before losses become too high. Soviet forces tend
to work best if they focus on either overwhelming firepower, or
overwhelming assault power. Germans are much more lethal than the
Soviets, but must eliminate a significant portion of the Soviet force
before the Soviet player can bring his superior numbers to bear, lest
they become overwhelmed at the point of the attack.
Soviets can have the best morale in the game; Fearless (Mid-war or
Guards) with a very powerful special rule to back them up, not to
mention enormous units which can shrug off losses that would eliminate
their German counterparts. Germans have only average morale, and no
special rule to stiffen their resolve. The troops have an annoying
tendency to ask questions like “Why are we losing?”, and “Isn't that a
better position over there?”.
This leads to a dynamic where the Germans prefer to engage at stand-off
distance, and pursue serious force destruction for an extended period of
time, while the Soviets would rather force the issue immediately, and
either duke it out within 16”/40cm, or go directly to assaults. Soviet
focus is on the objectives, and the fighting immediately around them,
while the German focus must be on force destruction, as the game is a
race against time to inflict enough casualties to matter, before the two
forces come to grips.
|German Infantry In Defense
Fighting in the Eastern Front can be close combat-oriented, and Soviet forces typically overmatch Germans in this area: at least at the start of a game when they are at full strength. To avoid being steamrollered, two tasks must be accomplished the Soviet force must be shot away, turn by turn, and enough defensive fire must be massed at critical points to keep the shooting match going until the Germans are ready to commit to close combat. It is critical to control which units get into close quarters, and when. The ability to dictate the event of close combat will often determine the outcome of a match between Soviets and Germans.
Stopping huge Russian infantry units simply requires more firepower than a German platoon has. Ten hits are not hard to achieve versus Conscripts, however this can be quite problematic against Guards. Soviets will eventually lose the Quality of Quantity special rule (see page 182 of the main rulebook) special rule due to losses. So Axis forces only need to hold the assault back until the Soviet combat unit can be shot down to size. At this point, they can be stopped with five hits, which is trivial to achieve against Conscripts. However, against a serious infantry attack your main defensive line will often need to use defensive fire several times before this point is reached.
Even at full strength, a Mid-war Grenadier platoon only has ten stands, which when pinned, means there is no margin for error. This is not enough to stop an infantry attack from a Soviet company. At some point, either a stand will die, or a “One” will be rolled, and the platoon will then have to suffer through a round of sudden-death close combat with large numbers of exceptionally motivated Soviets. Extra steps have to be taken.
|All Together Now
The first and most important counter to this is more mass on the German side. Take full strength platoons, Combat Attach (see page 184 of the mainrule book) as many stands as possible, put faith in cheaper equipment, and intermingle platoons for maximum advantage. Against infantry the classic example is to deploy an HMG platoon 3"/7.5cm behind a Grenadier platoon. Any attempt to assault the Grenadiers will draw the HMG platoon into the assault, giving them defensive fire of at least twenty four dice. Excessively more than enough to pick up the ten necessary hits to stop a large Strelkovy. The Grenadiers screen the HMGs against flame-throwers. In this case, the Grenadiers and HMG platoon can be expected to outfight the much larger number of Soviets. If no HMG platoon is available, a second platoon of infantry, or any MG carrying vehicle can be substituted.
The Soviets will try to assault away from the HMG teams, so as not to draw them into defensive fire. The way to prevent this is to spread the HMG platoon widely behind the Grenadiers.
Independent teams can play an important role in drawing extra platoons into an assault. Germans in particular have many Independent Teams, plus a very large command radius so can exploit this mechanic very easily.
||Finally, there are the Combat Attachments.
Although Combat Attaching stands of HMGs and Panzershrecks can
significantly contribute to the mass, and therefore the defensive fire of
the unit, they also will become pinned when the parent platoon becomes
pinned. The upside of this organisation is that the HMGs will always be
able to fire defensively if the platoon is assaulted, and do not need to
be drawn in to the combat. Combat attaching HMGs or PaKs is a
safe way to beef up the unit size so that it has as much firepower as it
|Attachments represent a case of being safe rather than sorry. The
attached HMG teams in this picture will get defensive fire regardless of
distance. However they will also likely be pinned along with their
parent platoon, so will probably only contribute two dice per team.
Also, some units naturally put out so much
defensive fire that they are almost unassailable by infantry. Armoured
Panzer Grenadier platoons, particularly those with extra halftracks, or
HQ or Heavy Platoon attachments, put out so much firepower even when
pinned that an infantry assault is simply unthinkable. Consider seven
halftracks plus seven infantry stands kick out around twenty eight dice when pinned!
|Add in two
HQ halftracks, and perhaps two HMG carrier halftracks from the Heavy
platoon, and it can quickly be seen that it is possible for the Germans
to build a wall of fire that cannot be defeated simply by throwing
bodies at it. Good luck assaulting this with infantry! It just isn't going to succeed.
Once the Soviet infantry attack is hung up with defensive fire, it can
be reduced to a manageable size by shooting, artillery, and eventually
by German assaults for the final sweep. Killing Soviets is where template
weapons are often very handy, but it is more important to stop unwanted
assaults from happening. So units like HMGs or light tanks demand
higher priority over artillery when choosing initial units in your
defensive line, although template weapons are excellent at actually inflicting
losses on the massed Soviet units.
|Soviet Infantry Defensive Gambits
If the Germans are attacking you, you are really only trying to hold on, and inflict as much damage on his assault troops as possible. This means anything you can do to kill his infantry platoons is critical, as the other units are essentially harmless in terms of actually winning the game, no matter how impressive their stats may be!
This is where a lot of lesser units can shine. Soviet HMG companies in ambush will normally exterminate the initial target of their wrath, something from which German infantry companies often cannot recover. Anti-tank guns with Volley Fire (see page 159 of Fortress Europe) are an even better choice, as these shred not just infantry, but also halftracks, and light tanks. The key is to have as large an ambush unit as possible; a force of six 45mm Anti-tank guns with two more 45mm Anti-tank from HQ attached, is not overdoing it.
|Most German forces are quite Panzer-heavy but on the defensive you have no need to even engage the StuG F/8s. Your goal is to eliminate assault-worthy platoons like Grenadiers and Panzer Grenadiers. The StuGs will kill what they can kill, but it simply doesn't matter as long as you cripple the German's ability to assault you off the objective. In this role T-34s are at their best, as they can pick and choose what they are able to kill, while wasting the time of the heavier German units trying to hunt them down. Although you may wind up losing every gun in your list, and possibly every tank, the game itself can be decisively decided by eliminating the German assault power early. Forget about his Panzers, unless he gives you a good target. Kill his soft targets and the game will be yours, particularly against those German forces that only run one or two infantry platoons.
|Remember that force destruction is the necessary German mission. You
need only hold the objectives! Don’t waste time duking it out with his
purpose-chosen units. Instead stall, kill or weaken his most numerous
unit (it will be used in the assault), and try to keep your forces intact, to force him to act conservatively.
Armour adds a new wrinkle to the problems of attack and defense.
Tanks are trickier because the pace of the game is so much faster. There are generally never enough Anti-tank weapons to stop a Tankovy Battalion in its tracks, so the Germans must resort to focusing all available efforts on a concentrated point, the Schwerpunkt.
Other forces must make do and stall for time
while the mobile forces and main Anti-Tank weapons crush the Soviets one
company at a time.
Shoot First, Shoot Best!
There are many things that the German player can do to limit effectiveness of incoming fire. Concealed, Long Range Veterans neutralise five out of six dice rolled to shoot at them. This is before saves of any type. Veterans cannot even be shot at if concealed, gone to ground and at long range.
|This fact, combined with the clumsiness of Hen and Chicks (see
page 181 of the main rulebook) means that the Germans can always shoot
first when defending, and even sometimes when attacking. Being able to
kill off a large portion of the Soviet tanks before they can effectively
shoot is the first step toward making the numbers even, a situation
where the Germans should almost always win. Allowing the Soviets first
blood is a disaster, as every Panzer or Anti-tank gun is much more
precious than the Soviet counterpart, and their loss exacerbates the
numerical inequality, and gives the Soviet player even more of a
firepower advantage than he started the game with. Often a bad early
turn can lead into a downward spiral where the Soviets simply are
rolling too many dice at too few Panzers for the German player to ever
really recover. These early kills are also the main argument for running
Soviet airpower in a tank heavy force.
In addition to limiting the effectiveness of
Soviet fire, the German player also wants to limit the amount of it.
Smoke and angles are used to prevent the Soviet mass from ever firing at
full rate of fire. Use of smoke, or natural terrain features, or both
allows the Germans to force the Soviets to move to get shots. This
halves their Rate of Fire, or triggers Hen and Chicks, and
generally results in equal numbers of Panzers taking on equal numbers
of T-34s repeatedly over several turns, in a running battle style
engagement. Normally the skill and quality of the Panzers will win out
in this sort of matchup.
Panzer IVs in cover, using terrain and a little
smoke to limit the number of T-34s that can see them. Hopefully they can
kill all the visible T-34s.
|While the Germans have the challenge of trying to concentrate all Anti-tank assets on a part of the Soviet force, the Soviets have the difficulty of massing as many guns as possible on the hard-to-hit German tanks and Anti-tank guns. Whichever side can outmaneuver the other in this regard has an advantage. Some scenarios and terrain set-ups are quite difficult for one side or the other. As usual, the Soviets do better in close range, chaotic situations. Germans do better in set-piece conditions.
|Stalin says "Stall for time."
In almost every game the Soviets are confronted with tough choices. Although it is common to hear the phrase “You must be prepared to accept casualties if you play Soviets”, I cringe every time I hear it. The difference between those who crash and burn on the German defensive lines and those who are Heroes of the Soviet Union is largely about managing casualties. This includes reducing the amount of them as much as possible. Just as importantly, you must choose who dies and who lives—you, and not your German opponent.
This means that at times, most games in fact, you must engage your foe with a gross mismatch at some point on the table, in order to pin him down and keep him busy while your main effort takes place elsewhere. These attacks (and defenses) are apparently suicidal, but are better described as diversionary. You are relying on the large numbers of models in your force combined with one of the highest morale ratings in the game to prevent the complete loss of a unit while keeping the enemy busy punching a straw man. The goal is to keep his forces busy as long as possible, which means that you must not give him easy kills.
Here some T-34/85s are hopelessly outclassed by a
King Tiger. However, their presence prevents the Grenadiers from moving
up to seize the objective.
|It might even be smarter to hunker down in the woods, and try to draw the King Tiger in, but this single unit of tanks may be able to go to ground at the tree line, and waste umpteen turns of the King Tiger, while the Grenadiers are helpless to assault seven tanks who all could get defensive fire on them. The role of this T-34/85 unit is to die slowly, while the Soviet player wins in the rest on the board, against presumably easier opposition.
Swarm or horde-style forces work best for this,
as you can present the Germans with simply too many targets to eliminate
all at once. If the German player cannot concentrate his forces into a Schwerpunkt,
then he is usually too diffuse to actually kill any of your units, and
will usually wind up losing 1-6, despite having killed a large
percentage of Soviet forces.
The principle of giving your opponent something to shoot at is a very important one if you want your Soviet force to win.
That’s Heavy Man!
Both sides in this struggle have the option of going for the heavy gear. That is Tigers, Panthers, KVs, IS-2s, Churchills, Elefants, and so on. The very heavy equipment has the huge advantage of being more or less immune to medium tanks and the lighter anti-tank weapons, while at the same time able to dominate the open space on the table.
Again, there is a difference. Soviets are able to play with a good number of heavy tanks, while the German forces field fewer, but decidedly superior machines. This creates a brutal dynamic—Soviet heavy tanks are excellent counters to German medium tanks, while German heavy tanks are excellent counters to Soviet Heavies.
|If the Germans show up with a heavy tank, but there are no serious
Soviet tank threats to counter, then it must still be put to useful work
either in direct support of the softer German units, or to eliminate
the most valuable Soviet target post haste. It certainly isn’t optimal
however, and any list with a Tiger should consider how it will approach a
list containing thirty weak Soviet tanks. Often the ability to roll more dice is superior
to better dice, both for the Germans and the Soviets. Germans in
particular are in a race to wear down their foe, and spending too many
points on units that generate just a few dice can doom them to lose this
|On the Soviet side, if the Germans show up with
uber-weapons, then their own heavy tanks must play a game of run and
hide to try to keep their threat in-being. While the other portions of
their list go to work. It is quite common for enough other units in a
German army to be destroyed, forcing a company morale test, without even
shooting at the Tiger. Soviets always excel in attacking the soft parts
of a force. Naturally if there is no Tiger then the Soviets will most
likely push the Heavy tanks directly at the nearest objective, five
KV-1s (IS-2s) are hard to stop with PaK38 and Panzer IIIs.
The possible presence of a heavy tank on the
field should be considered when making the army list, however it is by
no means a requirement to take units capable of penetrating the armour on
a KV-1e to have a competitive list. The alternate strategy of
ignoring/limiting the effect of the heavy vehicles while racing the rest
of the army to the point of destruction, or simply capturing an
objective where the heavies are not, is extremely workable in practice.
The mistake is wasting time engaging a unit that you are not well suited
to deal with, when there are other, more useful things to do on the
board. Soviets in particular often field so much heavy
armour that they can focus on the task of winning the game, destroying
infantry and taking objectives, while not even trying to kill German
|These Grenadiers have no answer for the Guards IS-2s heavy tank company.
||Nor do the IS-2s tanks have any answer for the King Tiger tanks. Clearly they forgot to die slowly!
|German heavies, if taken, are almost certain to dominate the tank
fighting, but represent an extreme amount of inflexible points to do so,
while also running the risk that they will simply be wasted facing down
a Strelkovy horde. Or for that matter, facing a large amount of very poor
The main issue with taking heavy tanks for Germans is the loss of
flexibility, as you will have to usefully engage your heavy vehicle to
accomplish many tasks, given that you have invested so many resources in it.
The Soviets also have the points limit problem when taking heavies, but
at least they can be very effective anti-infantry units. They mainly run
the risk of being good targets for the notoriously effective and points-efficient German anti-tank units.