February 23, 2015 by crew
We’re back for another look at our “World War 2.5” article series, postulating the grim possibilities of an “Allied vs. Allied” war in the immediate aftermath of World War II. If you’re just joining us, the premise, scope, and objectives of the project were outlined in Part One of our series, along with some of this hypothetical war’s first engagements. Have no illusions, this could have happened. The Western Allies and the Soviet Union were the bitterest of rivals until Hitler attacked the USSR in 1941.
Through 1945, many important figures (including some heads to state) were certain such a conflict was in the cards. Armies on both sides had contingency plans quietly locked away in desk drawers “just in case.” And if you think the world was just “sick of war,” consider Greece, the Middle East, Malaya, Korea, the list goes on and on.
It is 04:00 hours on June 4, 1946. After three days of combat, the situation for the Western Allies does not look good. In the south, elements of the Soviet 1st Guards Tank Army and 5th Shock Army have smashed into the “Fulda Gap” in front of Würzburg, taking hideous losses in some of the largest tank battles since Kursk. But the American 2nd Armoured Division (and part of the 7th) have been effectively smashed, opening a potential breakthrough toward Frankfurt am Main.
This development is especially worrisome since a breach here would doubtlessly imperil the left wing of Patton’s Third Army fighting further south in Bavaria. The Soviet 1st Southwestern Front has also scored successes against General Hasso von Manteuffel’s newly-formed “Bundeswehr,” where a combination of tank, infantry, and even airborne forces threatens to cut off Nuremberg. Could a new “Stalingrad” be unfolding here in West Germany?
To the north, the Soviet 1st Northwestern and 1st Western Fronts have invaded Lower Saxony. Their first operational objective is Hannover, gateway to the Weser River and the industrial cities of the Ruhr. But while the initial Soviet attacks in the south were spearheaded by guards tank corps and followed by infantry, here in the north the Soviets reverse the pattern. Instead they lead off with “expendable” rifle divisions of the 2nd and 3rd Shock Armies, followed closely by elite divisions of the 8th Guards Army (the same men who once defended Stalingrad).
Reinforced by independent guards tank regiments, their mission is to storm the cities of Wolfsburg, Salzgitter, and Göttingen. Once this line of strongpoints has fallen, fleets of swift T-34 medium tanks (organized into tank and mechanized corps) will pour through the gaps and encircle Hannover from the north and south.
The Soviet plan, however, doesn’t quite work. First of all, the 50th Northumbrian Division (who landed at Gold Beach) repulses the attack of two guards rifle divisions at Göttingen in a furious two-day battle. Wolfsburg and Salzgitter eventually fall, but these battles cost the Soviets heavily and last almost a week (the Soviets need two full “WW 2.5” turns to take the towns, each turn is three days). The delay allows the British to deploy the 51st Highlander Division into the Harz Mountains, and the 3rd Canadian Division (Juno Beach) into the gap between Wolfsburg and Salzgitter.
Only when Salzgitter finally falls on June 5 can the Soviets commit their breakthrough forces: the 300 tanks, 2,000 vehicles, and 35,000 men of the 9th Tank and 8th Mechanized Corps. Their mission is to race through the breach and pivot northwest, forming one wing of the encirclement the Soviets hope to throw around Hannover. Their late start, however, has allowed the British to mobilize armoured reserves, and the British Guards Armoured Division and 31st Tank Brigade are soon moving to check the Salzgitter breakthrough.
What the British don’t know, however, is that the Soviets have already been watching this crossroads, thanks to a pair of BA-64 armoured scout cars. But these scouts apparently can’t get close enough to fix the exact locations of all the Cromwell tanks, some of them hull-down in hedges awaiting the Soviets in ambush. As the lead Soviet T-34/76s make their rush, these Cromwells open fire and the first Soviet tanks blow up.
As more T-34/76s pile onto the board, followed by a contingent of T-34/85s and SU-85 assault guns, the weight of fire starts to tell and soon the Cromwells are starting to burn. The British Comets respond, racing into position and drilling T-34/85s with longer-ranged fire from their 17-pounders.
But Soviet numbers (not mitigated by the disappointing first round of British ambush fire), soon have these Comets in trouble as well. Normally these swift British cruiser tanks would use “Fire and Manoeuvre” order to fire into the Soviets and then fall back, but the heavy armour reinforcements still haven’t arrived and the T-34s (almost as fast as the Cromwells) could reach the objective bridge in the meantime. Thus, the light cruiser tanks have to stand and fight in a hopelessly outmatched slug-fest. Luckily for the British, however, they have an ace up their sleeve.
The timely arrival of British a “Typhoon” fighter-bomber helps the British turn the tide. But even as a second “Tiffy” is chased off by a Soviet LaGG-3 fighter, the heavier armour of the Coldstream Guards finally arrives. Churchills, Challengers, and even an A43 “Black Prince” cross the vital bridge to bolster the disintegrating screen of lighter Cromwells and Comets.
Once the heavy British infantry tanks are across the bridge, the Soviets are finally broken. They’ve lost too many units and too much time clearing the cruiser tanks. The Churchills are too heavily armoured for the last T-34/76s, and the 17-pounders of the Black Prince and Challenger quickly seal the solid, if bloody, victory. Assuming the rest of the Guards Armoured Division’s engagements against the 9th Tank Corps took a similar course, the Soviets are going to have to find another route if they want to encircle Hannover.
Down in the south, meanwhile, the situation is looking far better for the Soviets. Having suffered hard reverses in the Fulda Gap and along the Ussel River, the Americans and West Germans are unable to prevent the city of Nuremberg from being sliced off from outside communication and supply. An entire American division and several German brigades are now trapped in a small and shrinking pocket. By June 8, 1946, the Americans actually consider using the A-Bomb to redress this desperate situation, but to do so would doom the Allied garrisons in West Berlin, still surrounded by Soviet forces in East Germany. Fortunately for the Americans, however, that “one division” in Nuremberg happens to be the elite 82nd Airborne.
These initial battles of Nuremberg will prove especially vital in our alternate history, if only because of the close cooperation between American and German troops, soldiers who’d been mortal enemies only 13 months before. The outskirts of Nuremberg have already been heavily shelled by Soviet artillery of the 5th Guards Army, but the American paratroopers and German grenadiers withdraw deeper into the city, where stronger buildings will make for formidable redoubts. Thus, they draw the Soviet guardsmen into a maze of streets and ruins where their numbers will count for far less.
On our gaming table, this was our first game of “Battlegroup” where we really let infantry and artillery take centre stage, and were amazed at the tactical depth and nuance that resulted. The Soviet attack was slow to get started, they took their time getting observer teams into position where they could call on 82mm mortars and 76.2mm divisional guns. The American paratroopers, with typical aggression, used this pause to push out with bazooka-armed squads of infantry, but only after their own 81mm mortars and 75mm “pack howitzers” had pinned down the Soviet infantry supporting the tanks.
Soviet guards units, however, always have plenty of two quantities: numbers and determination. Their own artillery soon had American spotter positions pinned down, which were then overrun with Soviet close assaults. How much easier this is when you pin the enemy down first!
Building by building, the Soviets moved forward, always under the cover of their mortars, artillery, and direct howitzer support of their SU-122 assault gun. At one point, the Soviets played a “Confusion” counter on our paratroopers, forcing them to make an immediate morale check. But the paratroopers passed in true 82nd Airborne style. Yet only when the two German “Hetzer” tank destroyers took out the rest of the Soviet armour (especially that SU-122) did the Americans just barely manage to hold the crucial objective and win the day.
So after the first nine days of our “World War 2.5,” the most threatening of the Soviet breakthroughs seem to be contained. For now. You can bet the Allies aren’t out of the woods yet, however. Check back next week to see how the tides of war turn when the Soviets commit their reserves!
- Part One: The Floodgates Open
- Part Two: The Big Push
- Part Three: Valiant Heroics
- Part Four [Finale]: The End?
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"Armies on both sides had contingency plans quietly locked away in desk drawers “just in case.”"
"The American paratroopers, with typical aggression, used this pause to push out with bazooka-armed squads of infantry"