December 22, 2014 by crew
In our continuing article series commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, we’ll take another look at recreating some of the Bulge’s key engagements on the wargaming table. Using carefully-constructed scenarios of Axis & Allies Miniatures and Avalon Hill’s “Panzer Leader,” I’ve worked with Beast of War community members Gladesrunner and Amphibiousmonster to create a multi-level wargamer’s view of this historic campaign. For a basic background on the Bulge and a look at our opening games, check out Part One of our series. You can also check out “Tank God” BoW John’s overview on a recent episode of the Weekender (time code 53:00). Meanwhile, let’s get “stuck back in” and see how “the Bulge” continues to develop.
ENGAGEMENT THREE: HOLDING THE
BRIDGE AT STOUMONT – DEC 19, 1944
As the surprise German offensive tore the first gashes in the reeling American lines, the Germans sent specialized “breakthrough” units through these gaps to race deep into the snowy Belgian countryside. Their mission was to seize bridges and road junctions so the overall German drive could continue unabated. Sometimes these forward detachments would run into isolated pockets of American resistance, sparking furious battles over key patches of ground the Germans just had to have. Our third Battle of the Bulge game takes a look at once such fight between elements of the American 119th Infantry Regiment (30th Infantry Division) and the most infamous unit to take part in the Ardennes Offensive, “Kampfgruppe Peiper.”
Kampfgruppe (battle group) Peiper was an elite, independent mixed-arms detachment of the Waffen SS, commanded by Obersturmbannführer (roughly a lieutenant-colonel) Joachim Peiper. The unit had the best vehicles and equipment available, including Königstigers of the 501st SS “schwere Panzer-Abteilung” (heavy tank detachment). They were the designated spearhead of the 1st SS Panzer Division, the 6th Panzer Army, and the whole Ardennes Offensive. To accomplish its mission, Kampfgruppe Peiper had over 100 tanks, 500 other vehicles, and 4800 troops.
Thus far, Kampfgruppe Peiper had not enjoyed easy going. Time and again they would come to a bridge only to have it blown up in their faces by American defenders. Legend tells of a frustrated Peiper pounding on the roof of his command vehicle, shouting: “Those engineers, those damned engineers!” – a mark of pride cherished by American combat engineer units to this day. Peiper’s men certainly couldn’t stop to take prisoners, leading to the horrific and deliberate massacre of 84 American PoWs near the town of Malmedy. Whether Peiper himself gave the order remains unclear, but the fact remains that these were hardened men of the 1st SS Panzer Division, drawn from Hitler’s personal “Leibstandarte” guard (the same ruthless division to which Michael Wittman had belonged). They were all too accustomed to the brutalities of the Eastern Front, where quarter was never asked…or given.
Nor was Peiper’s wrath confined to enemy troops. When an advanced unit of German infantry failed to open a gap in American lines (through which Peiper’s kampfgruppe was scheduled to rush), Peiper screamed at, berated, and threatened the commander until he gave Peiper a company of his men in apology. These were elite “fallschirmjäger” paratroopers, which would prove a key element in Peiper’s upcoming assault on Stoumont.
Again taking command of the Americans, Gladesrunner put up a rugged defence, especially in the shattered ruins of the St. Eduoard Sanatorium, the biggest building on the board and dominating terrain feature leading toward the bridge. She killed both my Panthers just coming onto the board, but the reliable Mark IVs (the true German workhorses of World War II) turned the American wing and opened the road for a small breakthrough. Historical gravitas notwithstanding, it felt good to finally win one of the games, if only barely.
ENGAGEMENT FOUR: DELAYING ACTION AT
NOVILLE – DEC 20, 1944
As previously discussed, the initial German plan for the Ardennes Offensive called for a powerful thrust delivered primarily on their right (northern) wing, in the area of SS Oberst-Gruppenführer “Sepp” Dietrich’s 6th Panzer Army. But as the battles around St. Vith and Elsenborn Ridge continued to drag on against heavy American resistance, the Germans steadily “sidestepped” south, probing hopefully for softer spots that might allow for a breakthrough toward the Meuse River. This carried the main German effort away from the SS divisions of 6th Panzer Army, and toward the Wehrmacht (regular Army) units of Hasso von Manteuffel’s 5th Panzer Army. As fate would have it, the spearheads of the 5th Panzer Army were just reaching a small Belgian town soon to be burned forever into the pages of history…Bastogne.
When the Germans failed to take Bastogne straight away they instead encircled the town and started to squeeze the perimeter. Game Four of our Bulge series depicts one of the initial battles of this “noose tightening,” where part of the 2nd Panzer Division tried squeezing down on the Bastogne Perimeter from the northeast.
Standing in the way of this move was my 2nd Panzer battalion-sized batch of tanks and halftrack infantry named “Team Desobry” after its commander, Major William R. Desorby. Hopelessly outnumbered by one of 2nd Panzer’s main kampfgruppe, Team Desorby was hurriedly reinforced by just four M18 Hellcat tank destroyers of the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion. Still this wouldn’t be enough, so the 1st Battalion of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment (part of the newly-arrived 101st Airborne) was trucked in to help in the defence.
If the “506th PIR” sounds familiar to you, that may be because it’s the parent unit of “Easy Company” featured in HBO’s “Band of Brothers” miniseries. So 1st Battalion would be Able, Baker, and Charlie companies (A, B, C)…while Dog, Easy, and Fox companies (D, E, F) make up 2nd Battalion/501st PIR). Fans of the series may remember when Easy Company first enters the woods in which they’re so ruthlessly shelled, they take positions in foxholes originally dug by 1st Battalion. The reason 1st Battalion has left is because they’ve been called here, to fight with Team Desorby at Noville.
This time I thought I’d take a swing at playing the Americans, with Amphibiousmonster taking the role of the 2nd Panzer’s kampfgruppe commander. There were six town hexes in play, and we decided that whoever controlled more of them at the end of Turn 12 would be the winner. He struck Noville in a pincer between his grenadiers and panzers, all while pounding Noville with self-propelled artillery and raking my infantry with the 37mm autocannon on his FlaK halftracks. His Panthers and Mark IVs quickly shut down my Shermans, but my single platoon of quick little M18 Hellcats kept shooting and displacing, steadily “sniping down” on the Germans’ armoured strength in true “tank destroyer” style. Finally the paratroopers of the 101st arrived and helped stabilize the situation, resulting in a tied game (both of us held three town hexes). This is pretty much what happened historically, with the Americans heavily mauled but the overall line remaining intact. German reinforcements would allow them to make a slight advance in the days to come, soon occupying the town of Foy as we see in “Band of Brothers.”
ENGAGEMENT FIVE: BLOODBATH AT
MARVIE – DEC 21, 1944
Our fifth game depicts another of these Bastogne perimeter battles, this time on the other side of the town and using 15mm miniatures. Here, we see the 901st Kampfgruppe of the elite “Panzer Lehr” Division take a crack at Bastogne’s southern perimeter. This division was originally formed by taking armour instructors out of German training schools. Of course this was a bad idea in the long run since it seriously degraded the quality of panzer recruits. But in the short run…yeah, it created one seriously elite panzer division.
One of the attacks launched by the Panzer Lehr at the southern Bastogne perimeter came at the village of Marvie, held (once again) by the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne Division. This time the unit in question was the 2nd Battalion of the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment, men who usually hit their targets “Pegasus Bridge” style. Here at Bastogne, however, the 327th (along with the rest of the 101st Division) had been deployed by truck as an emergency stop-gap to help halt the German advance.
The fighting at Marvie was especially ferocious, even for the Bulge. This would certainly prove to be the case on our table. Gladesrunner deployed a well-fortified defence, with American rifle platoons, bazooka teams, towed antitank guns, and mortars. For support she could call on fire missions of huge 155mm howitzers (firing from miles off-board, of course). Incidentally, these guns belonged to the 333rd Field Artillery Regiment, an African-American unit (the US Army was still segregated at this time) that had already suffered atrocities at the hands of SS troops in the Bulge’s opening days. But as supplies grew short for the besieged Bastogne garrison, artillery ammunition was one of the first things to run low. Accordingly, in our game the Americans had only two fire missions from these batteries available.
There were twelve buildings on the map, with victory going to the side that possessed more buildings at the end. Historically, the Germans took the southern half and the Americans retained the north. This is basically how our game shook out, with my Germans managing to take six of the twelve buildings. Admittedly I didn’t really deploy my StGs and StG-riders correctly, and my opponent might not have used those two precious 155mm howitzer barrages to best effect. The end result was that our losses might have been even higher than in the real battle, with our armies annihilating each other in nearly perfect “matter/anti-matter” fashion.
By this point, however, the Battle of the Bulge was only six days old. In the next part of our series, we delve into the battle’s second week, and watch the Allies begin their inevitable counterattack against “the Bulge.” Have a thought, question, suggestion? Please post below and keep the discussion going.
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"...shouting: “Those engineers, those damned engineers!” – a mark of pride cherished by American combat engineer units to this day."
"...our losses might have been even higher than in the real battle"