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Posted on Oct 31, 2003 in Stuff We Like

After-Action Report: Crusader ’41

By Brian King

"After-Action Report: Crusader ’41"
The British 8th Army’s winter offensive against the Afrika Korps

AAR report by Siberian HEAT and Keef for the game
The Operational Art of War: A Century of Warfare

Date: November-December 1941
Location: North Africa
Map scale: 5km per hex
Time scale: 1 Day turns
Unit Scale: Battalion
Length: 17 Turns

Scenario author : Doug Bevard
Axis Player : Brian "Siberian HEAT" King
Commonwealth Player: Keef

BACKGROUND (from scenario briefing) Following the largely inconclusive Brevity and Battleaxe battles of May and June 1941, the war in North Africa settled into a stalemate while both sides absorbed reinforcements and waited for supplies. Tobruk, meanwhile, remained under siege by the Axis partners but they could not prevent the encircled Australian Division from being relieved by sea and replaced by the 70th Infantry Division and other Commonwealth troops in a series of night operations. Axis pressure on Tobruk was increased significantly during October, but the port held out.

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Unable to continue resupplying Tobruk by sea, its relief by land became the aim of Eighth Army operations in November, under the code name Operation Crusader. The Commonwealth attack, launched on 18 November 1941, planned to tie down Axis forces on the Egyptian border using XIII Corps, while the armor of XXX Corps looped through the desert and advanced towards Tobruk. This would lure the tanks of the German 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions into a set-piece battle around the airstrip at Sidi Rezegh. Once the panzers had been defeated, British and Commonwealth infantry would advance, squeezing the enemy between themselves and the armor at Sidi Rezegh, then together they would advance and relieve the defenders at Tobruk.

Rommel, intent on attacking Tobruk, did not react immediately to the British attack, but when it became obvious that a major battle was developing, he committed both his panzer divisions to Sidi Rezegh. This is what the British had planned, but a lack of coordination between the three armored brigades meant that they clashed with the panzers piecemeal. By 22 November, Sidi Rezegh and the airfield were back in Axis hands and the panzers pushed forward into the gap between the two British Corps, destroying the 5th South African Infantry Brigade. By now the battlefield was chaotic, leading Rommel to make a rare mistake. On 24 November he ordered his remaining tanks to disengage and race for the Egyptian-Libyan border, convinced that nothing more than infantry lay between him and the Nile Delta.

Inside the defensive ring around Tobruk, the garrison was prepared to make its breakout attempt and struck against the encircling Italian divisions. The Panzer Division’s raid to the border, in the exact opposite direction of where they were needed, enjoyed some success but their absence allowed the British armor to recover sufficiently to link up with the Tobruk garrison.

Once Tobruk had been relieved, Rommel’s main force was dangerously exposed. He recognized his mistake and recovered quickly, inflicting heavy losses on the New Zealand Division around Sidi Rezegh, but he could do nothing to prevent the Commonwealth Forces from entering Tobruk. By the 10th of December, realizing that supplies were short and that his panzers had been baldly mauled, Rommel decided he had no choice but to withdraw to El Agheila. Rommel and his Afrika Korps had been beaten, not by British military prowess but by a lack of Axis logistic support. The orderly retreat, combined with the exhausted state of the Commonwealth formations, insured that Tobruk and the British had not seen the last of the "Desert Fox!"

Axis Initial Thoughts (Siberian HEAT)

At first glance, this scenario is appears to be a hopeless cause for the Axis side. I certainly sat down thinking I was not going to be able to hold off the Commonwealth Juggernaut. However, I felt a bit of relief when I learned my opponent was a new player to the TOAW ladder. It gave me hope that I could delay, confuse, and otherwise harass him enough to keep him out of Bardia at the very least. I was hopeful his inexperience conducting a combined-arms offensive might give me the edge I needed to retain Bardia. I did not allow myself to become overconfident however, as being new to a ladder does not necessarily mean new to the game!

Unlike the original Crusader battle, the goal of this version of Crusader is not necessarily going to be the relief of Tobruk, but will instead be a thrust to capture the city of Bardia. Due to the high VP values of Bardia and Sollum, along with their high permanent VP bonuses when captured by the allied player, the fall of Bardia is pretty much a guarantee of allied victory. Thus, as the Axis player, I knew everything I could spare would have to protect this region. I could only assume my opponent knew this as well…

Therefore, my plan was to throw up a defensive line south of Bardia and concentrate my two Panzer divisions there. I would also string out defensive emplacements south of Gambut in an arc linking up with Bir El Gubi. The goal here was to prevent any CW thrust to cut off the coast road and therefore cutting my supply chain to Bardia. At Tobruk I planned on limited thrusts but after extensive analysis I felt I had little chance to make significant headway with the Italians…especially since I planned on moving both Panzer divisions out of the vicinity. In short, I was hoping to engage his main force at Sollum with the best of my units, while my secondary forces fought holding actions everywhere else. Where possible I tried to send small recon units into his flanks to force him to deal with those as well. All my tactics were designed to draw him away from the main prize at Bardia.

Allied Initial Thoughts (Keef)

Playing TOAW against humans instead of the PO has elevated the TOAW experience from good to great for me as it introduces two critical elements; UNPREDICTABILITY of your opponent and the impact of PSYCHOLOGY. As you will see from this AAR, psychology was hard at work in this Commonwealth commander’s head!

I usually start a game with the following question as the foundation for my plans; "what are my opponents critical vulnerabilities?" i.e. what are the things or places that if I destroy or occupy assure me victory. In the Crusader scenario I identified three areas of focus that I felt represented my Axis opponent’s critical vulnerabilities.

1) The capture of Bardia and Sollum. The bonus victory points almost assure an overwhelming victory for the CW player. Well here is the first psychological attack?I decided that my opponent, Siberian Heat, was too good a player to allow me to capture both these towns. I assumed that one or both of his Panzer Divisions would be entrenched there and that there was no way that I would be able to unseat him. So their capture came off my primary objectives list and I concluded that I would go for a marginal or tactical victory as I effectively ruled out the possibility of an overwhelming victory. Don’t misunderstand me here… I intended to fight like the dickens. I just formulated my plans with what I thought was a healthy dose of reality. Think of yourself as an untested General being shipped off to North Africa to fight a legend – Rommel. Well now you understand my mindset as I planned the battle.

2) The destruction of one or both of his Panzer Divisions. If I was able to be so lucky as to catch one of his Panzer Divisions out "in the open" I felt that if I concentrated my armor with supporting artillery and infantry that I just might be able to destroy it. I thought that if I destroyed one of the divisions and the other was entrenched at Bardia then I could have my way with the Italians. The Italians are largely responsible for the western areas of the map and there are enough VP’s in the west near Tobruk to secure a minor or tactical victory.

3) Cutting off supplies to the Bardia/Sollum area. If I was able to breakthrough the Italians in the west, in and around Bir el Gubi and Sidi Rezegh, then I could link up with Tobruk, form a ring around the German forces defending Bardia/Sollum, and effectively cut off supplies from getting to them. That might just allow me a chance to breakthrough to Bardia after all. This would be difficult given the short duration of the scenario but still presented an interesting possibility.

Axis Planning (Siberian HEAT)

The most important element to a good strong defense south of Bardia is the Axis ability to delay the main CW force BEFORE they reach your main line. To that end I pushed out some German recon units and dug them in to the hills. I hoped they could buy me a few extra turns so I had time to establish my line, dig in a bit, and deploy my artillery in the most favorable positions. In this game my delaying tactics worked fairly well, and I was able to hold him off the main line until about turn 6 or 7. Even so, the battle was back and force once he ran up against the line…and it wasn’t impregnable!

Below is my defensive layout as planned before the battle. The red line is where I hoped to be able to set up my defense, obviously in a position to maintain control of the bulk of the VP locations in the Sollum region. The blue line is where I planned my stand-fast line to be held to the death in front of Bardia. The benefits of both these lines is the lack of flanking bonuses anywhere on the line itself (with the exception of the very southernmost red hex). This means the opposing forces must breach the line somewhere in order to get the flanking bonus. Hopefully, there will be reserves in place to push them back should a breach develop. The black lines are where you want your delaying forces…

bardia
Developing a defensive strategy

I can’t stress enough how important this front is to the overall war effort. For all practical purposes if the allies reach Bardia, the game will end in an overwhelming defeat for the Axis. Expect your counterpart to expend every effort and all possible troops trying to reach Bardia. The rest of the front for me was secondary, even Tobruk. I focused all my effort into holding this line…

Allied Planning (Keef)

With my opponent’s weaknesses in mind I prepared a plan that consisted of the following core elements;

1) Pin the Solum line from the East with the minimum amount of forces (infantry and minimum artillery).
2) Move a large infantry force, well supported with artillery, around the bottom of the Sollum line (Bir el Sheferzen) to "roll it up" from the south and west. This force was to push as far north as it could get without armor support. I had thought Sollum and Ft. Capuzzo were possible at the outside. Once the advance had reached a solid defensive line all efforts would shift to attempting to turn the flanks at Sidi Azeiz and Sollum.
3) Concentrate 100% of my armor with supporting infantry and artillery in and around Gaber Saleh and Bir el Essem. I planned to do this in as stealthy a mode as possible (i.e. have recon units move through the area first) hoping that the German commander did not fully appreciate the size of my force concentrated in the middle of the map. My rationale for concentrating at this position was as follows;

- from this position my "strike force" would be able to engage at the decisive moment at the decisive place with decisive force. This position allowed for a strike to the west (Bir el Gubi and Sidi Rezegh) where it would engage the Italians, attempt to link up with Tobruk and cut off German supplies, and capture enough VP’s to win a victory. This was in my mind the most likely course of action. In effect I would be pitting my best force (armored strike force) against his weakest force (Italians).
- however, this position also allowed for a rapid strike to the northeast (Sidi Azeiz) where it could reinforce an attack on Bardia should that become opportunistically attractive.
- And, it also opportunistically allowed for a coordinated attack on a Panzer Division that just might get adventurous and move towards the center of the map where I was lying in wait.

I decided that no later than turn 5 or 6 I would have to commit the strike force where it made the most sense. This would give me the time to figure out "what exactly is the enemy up to?" and avoid committing my premier forces before I knew where they would be decisive. I wanted to keep my options open. I desperately wanted to avoid a "slugfest" WW1 style fight with Siberian Heat, an opponent that I felt was far superior in technical ability than me. My victory would have to come from surprise, maneuver and concentrating overwhelming superiority at one place. In effect I was going to avoid the Panzer Divisions unless I could fight them where I wanted to. Otherwise I would be satisfied to pin his superior forces and settle for a minor/tactical victory by winning in the west against his Italians.

This then is the plan set forth by a commander that was psychologically intimidated by his well-known opponent. In hindsight, while I believe my overall plan had merit (and would again pursue a variation of it with some modifications I will discuss later) the psychological factors were enormous in setting my goals.

[NOTE: You can clearly see the effects of psychology even before the first turn, as the Commonwealth player had already decided NOT to launch an all-out attack on the ONE place the Axis was determined to conduct an "all-out" defense. This was probably the key to the whole game.]

Axis Play/Endgame Strategy (Siberian HEAT)

The initial allied attack on the southern forts of the Sollum line took longer than I could have possibly hoped for. Turn 1 is the most critical because all of the Axis units are sitting out there in mobile status and are easily retreated. However, as the turns progressed I was able to dig in a few of them and sent out some German recon units to shore up and delay his main force. By turn 6 or 7 he reached my main Sollum/Bardia defense line and the real assault began. Fortunately (for me) I was able to counterattack locally and I recaptured two hexes on the coast road to complete my defensive line as shown by the red-outlined hexes in the image above. At the very southern red hex I entrenched a company of Panzers who managed almost single-handedly to hold that hex against all attacks for the next 10 turns!

Elsewhere I made little progress against Tobruk initially, and he was able to strike out and capture El Adem and hold it. As I said, I mainly had Italians on this front and thus was unable to recapture the city. At one point he even managed to nearly break through the Tobruk ring to meet up with his armor massing around El Gueitinat. I could see his armor here and there parked along the roads behind his lines, I figured he was waiting for the perfect time and place to strike, although I had no idea where he was going with them. However, I did keep a few surprises of my own, and managed to hold 2 battalions of Panzer Grenadiers from 15 PZ in reserve…one of which quickly plugged the developing breach north of El Gueitinat. This seemed to stabilize this front for the rest of the game…

I sent my second reserve battalion to the battle at Sidi Azeiz as my Sollum Line was very much in danger of being turned from the west. The endgame was very tense as I think he finally realized he was in a position to exploit the breach and perhaps make a dash for Bardia from the west. However, just as I thought I had the game in hand, I committed a huge mistake by sending this fresh battalion into the heat of battle by overrunning several of his smaller units and placing it in a position to get surrounded and evaporated. This is exactly what happened. The remaining battle was tense and furious, and I was unable to recapture Sidi Azeiz although he was unable to take any other cities on the line. I was quite worried he would breach my lines, but with virtually nowhere to retreat to, I had to keep a strong front as long as possible and was lucky enough to run out the clock.

The final turn I was sitting at a marginal defeat, but I was able to exploit some of his extremely weak front line units by getting automatic overruns and pushing into his rear areas to steal enough VP locations to secure a DRAW result. This was accomplished by walking through his artillery parks south of the Sollum line and riding them back to Sidi Suleiman. My troops were determined to avoid defeat no matter what the cost!

tobruk_end

End of game around Tobruk

bardia_end

End of game around Sollum Line

Allied Play/Endgame Strategy (Keef)

My attacks on the Sollum line progressed in classic "Montgomery" style… slow and steady. As planned, I pinned the line from the east and flanked the line from the south. I made steady progress rolling it up and all went well until I hit his brick wall of panzers at the line of defense he set up at Sollum. My infantry ran into his wall of panzers and with no tanks in support, my attack from the south was halted.

Around turn 6 or 7, knowing that his panzers were around Sollum, I decided that it was time to commit my armored forces, which I had been holding in reserve around Gabr Saleh and Bir El Essem. 2/3rds of this armored strike force stuck to the northwest in an effort to cut through his defending Italians and link up with Tobruk – thereby cutting supply off to the Sollum/Bardia area. The other 1/3rd struck to the northeast in an attack on Bardia from the west. I also launched break out attacks from Tobruk simultaneously which met with some success capturing and holding the town of El Adem.

In the Tobruk region I got within 3 hexes of linking up with the approaching armored force but my attacking armor ran out of steam and could push no further. Two things got in my way. First, I discovered that even Italians, when given an opportunity to dig-in in good terrain and led by an excellent commander, were capable of one heck of a fight. Second, he unexpectedly threw a couple of panzer grenadier units into the fight, which I did not think were in the area.

The final turns were filled with furious battles. While I made progress and surely made him sweat, I just couldn’t finish the job in either linking up with Tobruk or breaking through to Bardia.

Allied Lessons Learned:

I think my two key concepts for the game of concentrating my armor and maintaining flexibility were sound. However, in retrospect I would also balance the need for speed with the need for flexibility. I allowed my skilled opponent too much time to choose where he would defend and allowed him to get dug in. This made breakthroughs very difficult when I finally committed my forces. Also when I did commit my forces you will note that I split them 2/3rds in one direction and 1/3rd in another. That prevented me from succeeding in either area.

With the benefit of hindsight I think an earlier attack to link up with Tobruk or an earlier attack on Bardia from the west would have been wise. Also I would choose one or the other, not both as I did, and commit the full weight of my armored strike force to get the job done.

Axis Lessons Learned (Siberian HEAT)

The strategy of fortifying an east-west line south of Sollum seems to be the only way for the Axis to hope to win this game. The Axis supply situation is tenuous at best, and large scale offensives are out of the question. Thus, I knew I had to get where I wanted my units in the shortest time possible and begin digging. The defensive line illustrated above is ideal because it presents no flank attacks but also because it is slightly removed from the initial battles, allowing you just the time you need to dig in.

Looking across the table, I am not sure what I would have done differently as the allies. Two possibilities would be to attack directly at the Italians going full throttle with all armor to possibly link up with the Tobruk ring. This would be most similar to the real battle… although this time you can’t count on Rommel to take off into the desert! Another option would be to press hard towards Gambut and cut off the coast road and by extension cut the supply to the Bardia line. This would be ideal, except the narrow corridors that you must fight through when crossing the escarpments. A third option is to throw everything at the Bardia line. My opponent was able to breach my line in a couple places, but was not able to exploit those gaps. I can only surmise that if he had all his armor ready to pour through…this game would have ended much differently.

 

Endgame Report

Enemy held objectives: 360
Friendly held objectives: 220
Enemy loss penalty: 132
Friendly loss penalty: 83
Axis Victory level: -91 (Draw)

 

by Brian "Siberian HEAT" King and Eric "Keef" Weider
October 26, 2002

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