Paul and I attended Nor’easter XXIII two weekends ago in Fairhaven, MA to finish our long-running playtest of Scenario One of our Advance to the Moselle TOCS module. The module covers the US 80th Infantry Division’s attempt to bridge the Moselle River in the area of the city of Nancy, France in September 1944. The module consists of three scenarios: Advance to the Moselle (4-6 Sep 1944), Mopping Up the Moselle (7-9 Sep 1944) and Breaching the Moselle (12-15 Sep 1944). Scenario One covers the initial advance of 80ID, and attached units, to the western bank of the Moselle River.
Advance to the Moselle
As the commanding officer of the 553rd Volksgrenadier Division, it was my job to prevent the Americans from reaching, much less bridging, the Moselle River. Compared to the Americans and their attached hardware, including a full tank battalion and a full tank destroyer battalion (plus artillery assets), my forces were quite meagre. While the 553rd does have three full regiments of infantry, for this scenario, only one regiment, the 1119th, is available as the other two are in transit. However, two other regiments of infantry are available as attached units: the 3rd Fallschirmjäger (Ersatz) Regiment and the 92nd Flieger Regiment, another ad hoc regiment of Luftwaffe AA units and ground crews.
It would be sheer fantasy to think that this collection of forces was going to stop the 80ID. But, stopping them was not the goal. The scenario mission brief was clear; the 553rd was to perform a delaying action. Standing, fighting and dying for the Vaterland was not the goal. Reinforcements, consisting of the 1120th and 1121st regiments of the 553rd division, the 29th Panzergrenadier Regiment of the 3rd PG Division and the 104th PG Regiment of the 15th PG Division were due to arrive in theater from Italy in the coming days (in later scenarios). The immediate goal was to keep the Americans off balance and keep them from bridging the river before the reinforcements were to arrive.
A quick look at the map showed that the obvious axis of attack would be along the paved road network and/or along the rolling farmlands to the west and southwest of Pont-à-Mousson. This area would be relatively good tank country, especially when compared to the wooded hills and WWI fortifications in the area around Toul. The decision was made early on to make the town of Bernecourt our first line of defense. While it is impossible for the Germans to cover every inch of ground, the weight of focus would be here and in the arc of woods sweeping north of Bernecourt to the northeast toward Pont-à-Mousson. It was in the Bernecourt area that the first minefields were sown and in the woods to the immediate north that the first strongpoints were built.
The Americans arrived off the march from the Meuse River bridgeheads around noon on 04 Sep. Apart from some hastily completed roadblocks, they made good progress in the expected area to the northwest of Bernecourt, while some minor probes were detected in the south.
It was early evening on the 4th when the initial battles were taking place in and around Bernecourt. With pressure along the approaches to the first belt of minefields, the engineers fell back to the area of the second planned defense line, the Noviant, Minorville, Manonville triangle in another gap between the numerous copses of woods that dot the landscape.
As the Americans kept trying to probe for weaknesses in the Bernecourt defenses, American reconnaissance forces were sent along the northern flank of their line, attempting to find a weakness in the defensive arc placed there. The German commander had planned well; the primary axes of advance had been covered. Still, once the Americans had advanced to contact, the full weight of their forces, especially their artillery with their ToT bombardments, were keenly felt and attrition began to take their toll.
Retreating in good order from contact with the enemy is one of the more difficult maneuvers to accomplish and this game system models this quite well. Without having enough OPs (Operation Points: a form of combat tempo currency) to move everyone in one impulse, I was forced as the German commander to retreat only a portion of my forces at a time to a second planned fall-back position. During the early morning hours 5 Sep, the American reconnaissance forces pushed forward into a gap created by the retreat of a battalion of ersatz fallschirmjägers. In that one moment, the American commander, though he didn’t know it, had threatened to unroll the entire woods arc and unhinge the entire position.
Through the entirety of 5 Sep, the German commander was spending OPs like a drunken sailor trying to repair the line and deceive the American as to the true nature of his defensive line. With Pont-à-Mousson in such close proximity, the need for this repair was urgent. Finally, through a combination of forward (extended) deployments, which throw ZOC two hexes forward along a directional axis at a cost of all-around protection, and the commitment of the bulk of the 553rd’s artillery and tank destroyer assets (StuG IIIGs and Hetzers), the line was repaired, but this expenditure of effort in the north delayed the withdrawal of the 92 Flieger Regiment to the fall-back position in the Noviant triangle.
The Luftwaffe’s finest ground troops paid the price as the American commander brought his artillery park within range of Bernecourt. Numerous time-on-target (ToT) bombardments into known concentrations of German troops fattened the butcher’s bill. During the 6th, the 92nd Flieger was withdrawing, but a full battalion paid the ultimate price.
When we called the game midway through the 6th, the Americans had reached the Moselle on the extreme northern end of the map, but Pont-à-Mousson, and every other bridge crossing, was still in German hands.
This game is a blast to play. Playing defense is fun in this game as there are tools in the player’s toolbox beyond hoping the attacker rolls terrible dice. I surprised Paul numerous times with combinations of minefields, artillery interdictions, artillery bombardments and simply withdrawing in the face of constant pressure.
One of the lessons learned from the playtest is that both the attacker and defender were starved of OPs. While this forced us to make difficult decisions, it was “too much of a good thing”. Frankly, we both suspected that the OPs allotments were too few for the scenario and we’ve already adjusted the system for the follow-on playtest.
GER Lesson 1: You cannot stand toe-to-toe with the Americans. If you stand, you will die. I was able to attrit the Americans pretty well as they approached, but I also paid the price when I stayed too long. As refitting units costs OPs, the rupture of my line prevented me from doing so. Being OPs starved also didn’t help; my die rolls were < 50% about 75% of the time.
GER Lesson 2: If your engineers aren’t busy every turn, you’re doing something wrong. Minefields can do a great job delaying the Americans. Occupying the minefields with troops will also delay them further as their engineers cannot remove the minefields. That said, once American recon finds you, you’d better be out of artillery range… or be in a strongpoint. Those ToT bombardments are vicious.
GER Lesson 3: Have your defense lines planned in advance and keep your divisional assets ready to respond to a critical section of the battlefield. If you overcommit too early, you’ll be hard-pressed to use your assets anywhere else. Keep your divisional artillery in centrally-located parks and in operational reserve. If the American show their hand by focusing some effort in one area, recon then blast them. While the Germans aren’t capable of ToT, the artillery can deliver a punch.
To echo Paul, the playtest was quite successful. We’ve now restarted Scenario One with some systemic and scenario tweaks and are itching to give it another go… this time with me as the Americans.