December 15, 2014 by crew
December 16, 2014 marks the 70th anniversary of one of the most well-known and controversial battles of the Second World War. The battle stirs debate to this day, sometimes over its very name. But whether you call it Operation “Christrose,” Operation “Wacht am Rhein,” the Ardennes Offensive, or the Rundstedt Offensive, its most famous title remains the one bestowed by the Americans who bore the brunt of its fury. They simply called it the Battle of the Bulge.
A Step Back In History
To commemorate the anniversary, our gaming group is running a series of wargames recreating some of the Bulge’s more decisive moments. For close-up views of small engagements, I have teamed with Beast of War community member Gladesrunner for “hexless” Axis and Allies 15mm miniature games (Wizards of the Coast). For the broader, operational-scale view of colonels and brigadier-generals, I have teamed up with community member and veteran wargamer Amphibiousmonster for games run in a modified version of Avalon Hill’s classic “Panzer Leader.” The objective of this article series is to take a look at the Battle of the Bulge through a wargamer’s eye, hopefully blending history and gaming for best results.
The Battle of the Bulge (so named for the huge bulge it pressed in Allied lines) remains the largest and bloodiest land engagement ever fought by the United States (over 90,000 total casualties, with over 20,000 killed). Because the Americans entered the war relatively late, this is probably the only time they felt the fury of a full German blitzkrieg, and got just a small taste of what the UK, France, and the Soviet Union experienced during the war’s early days.
The time was December, 1944…deep in the misty, snow-bound frost of the war’s last winter. The Normandy landings had taken place six months before. Since then, American, British, Canadian, and French armies had liberated Paris and pushed to the western German border. There they were stalled by the weather, exhaustion, logistical difficulties, the Rhine River, and German defences of the Siegfried Line.
Hitler had resolved to make the most of this reprieve, and directed his generals to mass the bulk of the Reich’s remaining reserves in preparation for a surprise attack on the weakest point of the Allied line. This was the Ardennes region along the German-Belgian border, a heavily-forested and hilly region held by just four understrength American divisions. Curling northward, the Germans would strike for Antwerp, the key Belgian port that was currently the Allies’ main base of supply. Such a strike could also split most of the American armies in the south from their British and Canadian allies in the north.
The scale of the German preparation was incredible, especially considering that they’d been on the losing end of World War 2 for almost three years. Three German armies (6th Panzer, 5th Panzer, and the 7th) had gathered together no less than 26 divisions, many of them the best units Germany had left. Many of these formations were lavishly equipped with weapons like the “Königstiger” heavy tank and the new “Sturmgewehr” StG-44, the world’s first assault rifle. The mobilization was made with masterful secrecy, despite complete Allied control of the air. Units never moved in daylight, officers never travelled with written copies of the orders, deployments were never directed by radio, and the strictest discipline was enforced with camouflage. By the middle of December almost a quarter million troops and thousands of tanks were at their jump-off points, and generally speaking, the Americans didn’t have a clue.
There were many reasons American commanders assumed they were safe. While battles like Market-Garden, Arracourt, and the Hürtgen Forest proved that German divisions could still mount bitter resistance and ferocious local counter-attacks, the idea of a large, operational-scale German offensive seemed far-fetched. Also, the Ardennes seemed the last place for anyone would launch a mechanized attack. Woods, hills, narrow roads, and numerous rivers crossed by only tiny bridges, all combined to make the Ardennes the worst “tank country” ever. Accordingly, the Ardennes was viewed by the Americans as a “quiet” sector of the line, where newly-arrived units were eased into front-line life and battered units could rest and train replacements.
But it was through this very same “unlikely place” that the Germans launched their successful blitzkrieg in 1940, defeating the French and British in a campaign that conquered most of Western Europe. The Americans forgot this, but at 05:30 on December 16, 1944…
…the Germans reminded them.
ENGAGEMENT ONE: BITTER DEFENSE AT KRINKELT-ROCHERATH – DEC 16, 1944
So let’s get gaming.
Our first game recreated part of the opening German onslaught, which tore into stunned American lines during the first hours of the battle. Using 15mm Axis and Allies miniatures, I took command of elements of the 12th SS Panzergrenadier Division, trying to break through positions held by Gladesrunner’s units of the US 99th Infantry Division. This fight took place near the tiny Belgian villages of Krinkelt and Rocherath, in the northern shoulder of the German breakthrough zone. The 6th Panzer Army had to take these towns and their roads in order to start their planned northward pivot toward the Meuse River and ultimately Antwerp.
The first step was to build our forces. When playing a truly historical battle, the first thing you have to do is dump any notions of “army lists” or “points.” Your list is what was there, translated into whatever gaming system you’re using. While this will yield some very unbalanced battles (war is never fair), you can make a fair game out of an unfair battle through careful construction of victory conditions. Basically, if you can take what was on the field that day and do better than your historical counterpart…you win. Needless to say, this approach to gaming requires a great deal of in-depth research.
The 12th SS Division was named “Hitlerjugend” (Hitler Youth), after the organization from which many of the men were drawn. But these were no Boy Scouts. By this point in the war they were hardened soldiers, ferociously loyal and and lavishly equipped, with plenty of experience ripping apart British and Canadian formations in the Normandy battles around Caen the previous June.
In contrast, Gladesrunner fielded elements of 99th US Infantry Division. This formation had only just arrived at the front, with so little experience that the unit was nicknamed the “Battle Babies.” Game units included rifle squads, plenty of bazooka teams, halftracks, trucks, and 81mm mortars, all representing about 200 men of the 393rd Infantry Regiment. The Americans also had one M-10 Wolverine of the 801st Tank Destroyer Battalion (attached), but their real firepower came from the 75mm and 105mm howitzer batteries of the 370th Field Artillery Regiment.
Despite this disparity of forces, the German attack was frustrated by skilful deployment of American forces, especially the bazookas and 76mm towed antitank guns. The terrain didn’t help, not to mention the tough victory conditions (I had to get at least three vehicles off the American edge of the map table by the end of Turn 7). Gladesrunner ensured that this was NOT an easy fight. In the end, I was only able to get two vehicles off, resulting in a narrow German defeat.
ENGAGEMENT TWO: ARMOUR IN THE DEFENCE 7TH ARMOURED AT ST. VITH – DEC 17, 1944
Our next battle is a little more famous. In fact, it’s still used in some military academies as an example of how to use armour not in its traditional role of attack, but in defence. The location was the Belgian town of St. Vith, many of the roads in 5th Panzer Army’s axis of advance initially converged. This made taking St. Vith absolutely crucial for 5th Panzer Army’s commander, General Hasso von Manteuffel.
At first, German spearheads made solid progress toward St. Vith. On the first day of the offensive, the Germans tore into the brave but hopelessly outmatched 106th Infantry (The Golden Lions), another brand-new division recently arrived from the States. Both wings of the 106th collapsed and two of the division’s three rifle regiments were surrounded, forcing one of largest surrenders of American soldiers in World War 2. The remnants of the 106th fell back to St. Vith, where they joined with the newly arrived US 7th Armoured Division. Here the Germans were slammed to a halt on December 17, sparking a furious battle for St. Vith that would rage for almost a week.
We wanted to take a larger view of this fight, so Amphibiousmonster and I went head-to-head in a game of Avalon Hill’s “Panzer Leader.” In this game, each counter represents a either a platoon (five tanks or 50-60 men) or a battery of artillery, depending on the historical organization of the armies in question. Thus, we could field forces totalling anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 men. Each hex is 250 meters across, covering a square area typically encompassed by three or four Bolt Action tables.
Like most American armoured divisions of the period, the 7th Armoured (Brigadier-General Hasbrouck) was organized into three “combat commands,” temporary regiment- or brigade-sized formations tailored to specific missions. At St. Vith we had Combat Command B, or “CCB,” reinforced by artillery assets attached from Corps (the 270th Field Artillery Regiment) and the remnants of the 106th Infantry. These survivors included the 81st Engineer Battalion, which would acquit itself well at St. Vith and inflict plenty of revenge for the rest of its unfortunate division. To build out CCB/7th Armoured, Amphibiousmonster fielded the 31st Tank Battalion, the 38th Armoured Infantry in M3 halftracks, and the 87th Armoured Recon Battalion in M8 and M20 armoured cars.
In our game, the Americans again held the line, albeit only after taking horrific losses. As the German commander, I managed a small foothold in the outskirts of St. Vith, but not enough to win the game. Another turn or two might have turned the tables, but I didn’t crack St. Vith in the time allowed, reflecting how the rest of the German operation starts to come unstuck thanks to my sluggishness.
Such was roughly the story with St. Vith historically. The stubborn American defence of this town and its vital road network meant that the whole German right wing bogged down. This was supposed to be the main punch of the Ardennes Offensive, but now this area of emphasis had to be shifted further south…toward a historic rendezvous with another small Belgian town named Bastogne.
Of course, the Battle of the Bulge was only just beginning. In future articles we’ll take further looks at this epic campaign, and how to bring it to the table top.
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"Basically, if you can take what was on the field that day and do better than your historical counterpart...you win"
"Of course, the Battle of the Bulge was only just beginning..."