Kharkov AAR Part 1

SSG men Steve Ford and Roger Keating go toe to toe in Kharkov, SSG's latest game. Who will prevail in this titanic Russian Front struggle?

As a signatory to the Tripartite Pact, Japan was an Axis power that was not, in 1942, at war with Russia and therefore maintained embassies in both Berlin and Moscow. Military Attaches at both embassies were surprisingly well placed to gather information on pivotal battles and it is through these and other sources that we can reveal what really happened in the second battle for Kharkov.

In early May 1942 both sides were planning major offensives around Kharkov. The Russians aimed to capture Kharkov itself in a pincer movement. The northern arm would attack Kharkov from a shallow bridgehead they had carved out over the Northern Donets at Staraya Saltov. The southern arm of the attack would come from the shoulder of a large salient that extended into the German lines south of Kharkov and would also include a secondary drive westwards towards Krasnograd.

The German plan was to eliminate the Russian salient by simultaneous attacks from both the northern and southern shoulders of the salient. Both sides had assembled powerful forces, though the Germans had been much more successful at concealing their build up. The historical battle provided an explosive start to the campaign of 1942 which ended in Stalingrad and much is expected from the coming battle. Shot 0 shows the battlefield at the start of the battle.

Click here to see Shot 0

The Protagonists
Very little is known about the opposing generals, von Ford for the Axis and Keatingski for the Russians. It is inferred that Keatingski owes his current position to the dreadful attrition of Stalin’s pre-war purges. Keatingski’s habitual reserve and naturally taciturn nature are thought to have helped to ensure his survival by giving potential rivals nothing to denounce. Nevertheless, Keatingski will have made fairly ambitious promises to Stalin in order to get the resources to mount his offensive and the future is usually very bleak for those who disappoint the Great Architect of Communism.

Von Ford is also something of a new man. He owes his current elevated position to vacancies at the top created by the removal of generals who were convenient scapegoats for the Wehrmacht’s reverses during the previous winter. Like his opponent, von Ford will be expected to achieve a crushing victory to restore the initiative and the glory to the Wehrmacht and Hitler. Failure for von Ford will result in a posting to the Murmansk front, a billet only marginally more appealing than the cell in the Lubyanka which awaits a failed Keatingski.

Russian Turn 1
It’s non stop action for Keatingski as the Russians crank up the steamroller and aim it straight at the German lines. Keatingski has three offensive axes, the northern pincer aimed at KHARKOV, the southern pincer of the same KHARKOV drive and a secondary drive aimed at KRASNOGRAD. Just how far the Russians get on each axis rather depends on the Germans, but on the first four turns, the Russians get Supply and Indirect Fire bonuses and must make the best use of these they can.

Shot 1 shows the rather dire looking situation facing the Germans at KHARKOV. Units from the Soviet 28th and 38th Armies have destroyed both the fort lines facing them and the 513th Infantry Regiment of the 294th Division and seem to have a clear path to KHARKOV. Units from the 21st Army are threatening the positions of the 79th Infantry Division and other 38th Army units have advanced towards CHUGUYEV.

Click here to see Shot 1

Shot 2 shows the position south of KHARKOV, which is equally discouraging for Von Ford. Russian hordes have eliminated a hapless Hungarian regiment, surrounded other Axis units and Russian cavalry is already making a nuisance of itself well behind the lines.

Click here to see Shot 2

German Turn 1
Thankfully for von Ford there are two Panzer divisions loitering in Kharkov, waiting for the start of a German counter-offensive. Just how the German player uses these powerful formations will shape the course of the entire battle. There are only three choices, to send both north, both south or to send one to each of the main fronts.

Von Ford opts to send one Panzer division north and one south. However, neither division mounts a major counter-attack, even though this is the moment when the attackers are at their most vulnerable. German artillery extracts a heavy toll, and an overzealous regiment who advanced too far pays the price for listening to the commissars and is picked off. Still, the Russian spearheads suffer no major reverses to their initial advance.

What then of the northern attack? The 3rd Panzer Division is responsible for the Russian KIA and elements of the division are to be found in the front lines, but again there is no major counter-attack. However the Russian can be in no doubt that the seemingly open door to KHARKOV has been well and truly closed.

In the far south, von Ford jumps the gun on his planned offensive and inflicts heavy losses on some carelessly positioned Russian regiments. Although he might expect a terse query from HQ about this, an experienced general has many excuses he can deploy, ‘straightening out lines’, ‘reconnaissance in force’ and ‘they started it’ have all worked well in the past.

Russian Turn 2
Keatingski makes very little progress on the major fronts, doubtless he will cite the unseasonal weather and accompanying mud as reasons why his forces have not achieved the phase lines so carefully drawn on the map by Stavka.

There is some progress in the south where a lone regiment of the 70th Cavalry Division, showing great élan, gallops all the way up to KRASNOGRAD. We can assume that the unit showed similar dash in a reciprocal direction when it discovered that 3 regiments of the 23rd Panzer Division had taken up residence before them.

Better news is that the 454th Security Division has suddenly found life profoundly less secure and the regiments surrounded on Turn 1 are duly eliminated on Turn 2. Shot 5 shows the position in the south.

Click here to see Shot 5

German Turn 2
The direct southern route to Kharkov seems blocked, for the moment, by hedgehogged infantry units backed up by armored elements. However, the Soviets have a large amount of powerful artillery and have yet to commit their two Tanks Corps in the south. Can a single German infantry regiment, no matter how well entrenched, stand up to the deluge of fire that the Russians can unleash? We suspect that von Ford will soon find out.

Von Ford seems to be doing a thorough job of defending KHARKOV itself, although the front at CHUGUYEV is resting on thin air. Is this a wise choice? CHUGUYEV itself is a reasonably important objective and a breakthrough here could be embarrassing. Shot 6 shows the situation in front of KHARKOV. The German line in front of Kharkov is very stretched and a single failure could be catastrophic.

Click here to see Shot 6

Alas for the brave lads from the 70th Cavalry Division, their reconnaissance in force at KRASNOGRAD was met by a defense in overwhelming force and the brutes from the 23rd Panzer Division brought a quick if untimely end to their frolic behind the lines.

Russian Turn 3
Von Ford is defending a fair way out from KHARKOV and has his line running through open terrain, with infantry regiments hedgehogged in the front line, stacked with anti-tank battalions and backed up by panzer regiments dug in behind them. This configuration is very strong against frontal attack, but is vulnerable to artillery, of which the Russians have plentiful supply. The way to defend against powerful artillery is to stack at least two units with plenty of steps in a hex, preferably one with an Indirect Fire modifier and have a second line of entrenched units so that if the first line are forced to retreat, they do so onto the already entrenched units and are thus less vulnerable to further Indirect Fire.

Von Ford could easily do this by deploying the two extra infantry divisions that he doesn’t have. His expedient, of entrenching single panzer regiments in the second line is risky, because any Russian units that get adjacent will expose the unit for artillery fire, to which its two steps make it vulnerable.

Sadly for von Ford, this is what happens to his KHARKOV defenses. An infantry regiment is barraged and bombed into oblivion, the anti-tank battalion is overrun and a panzer regiment in the second line is also eliminated by artillery. The result is a Russian breakthrough. The same technique is employed northwest of CHUGUYEV and the result is a double breakthrough.

Now would be a good time for von Ford to use his panzer divisions to crush the breakthroughs and restore the line, but this will be difficult. Roughly half of the 3rd Panzer Division is committed to front line defensive duties and most of the 23rd Panzer Division is off spanking cavalry brigades in front of KRASNOGRAD so it remains to be seen if von Ford can restore the line. Shot 7 shows the breakthroughs.

Click here to see Shot 7

At the same time, a swirling and confused fight has broken out near KRASNOGRAD, where despite the presence of 23rd Panzer, von Ford cannot maintain a continuous defensive line and Russian cavalry and tank units continue to force the issue. Keatingski has taken the courageous decision to release 21st Tank Corps earlier than planned. If anything goes wrong, Keatingski will, by this action, have promoted himself to unenviable job of scapegoat, with the usual dire consequences. Shot 8 shows the situation in the vicinity of KRASNOGRAD.

Click here to see Shot 8

German Turn 3
The 3rd Panzer have had a busy time, and the southernmost breakthrough near KHARKOV has been punished and contained and the northern breakthrough punished, but not contained. The line north of KHARKOV has a two hex gap, and it’s not clear why von Ford has chosen to do this. Is this gap the result of the counter attacks, with units unable to move back into a continuous line? Is it a deliberate tactic, enticing Keatingski to advance with a view to cutting him off in subsequent days? Either way, it could be asking for trouble, as Keatingski has a large number of units that he could push through the gap. Shot 9 shows the situation, along with the two hex gap.

Click here to see Shot 9

Around KRASNOGRAD the fighting continues. More of Keatingski’s cavalry brigades are eliminated but again there is no continuous defensive line and another gap invites Keatingski to drive through. Shot 10 shows the situation.

Click here to see Shot 10

Posted by Gregor - July 17, 2008
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