Sunday, December 31, 2017

Africa – Axis and Allied Forces

The North African desert war highlighted another British vulnerability: its reliance on Egypt and the Suez Canal to reach its Asian interests, including food and raw materials from south and southeast Asia and oil from Persia (Iran) and Arabia. Threatening Suez meant threatening Britain’s ability to hold its own and keep fighting. But the desert war exposed major weaknesses in the Italian part of the Axis equation and also in blitzkrieg warfare itself, which proved inadequate over the long empty spaces of Libya.

The struggle began in September 1940 with an attack from Libya into Egypt by the Italian army, a large but ill-trained and immobile force with obsolescent tanks and aircraft. The British had fewer troops and offered only modest resistance, but the Italians halted after 60 miles to resupply and never resumed their advance. Britain scraped together additional troops, including some armor, for a “5-day raid” that turned into a major offensive. In 61 days the Desert Army advanced 500 miles along the coastal roads of the great hump of Libya, captured 130,000 Italian prisoners and mountains of supplies, occupied the key port of Tobruk, and pushed the Italians past Benghazi.

Two events conspired to reverse things. Churchill— alarmed that Hitler had drawn Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia into the Axis orbit and was preparing to help Mussolini in Greece and Crete—ordered troops from North Africa to Greece, a move that failed to hold Greece but weakened the Desert Army. Hitler meanwhile sent Erwin Rommel with two crack panzer divisions and air support to bolster Italy in Libya. Ever bold, Rommel immediately counterattacked, using vigorous flanking movements to retake all the ground just lost and more, except for Tobruk, which grimly held. In April 1941, having reached Egypt but with his fuel running low and defenses stiffening, Rommel halted.

Britain took the field again in late 1941 with a new commander, an infusion of Lend-Lease equipment, and fresh divisions. Rommel retreated to a point west of Benghazi, but the Desert Army, weakened by its own supply problems and the diversion of forces to the Far East to face Japan, could not follow through. Rommel was now avid to seize Suez, and he was confident that he could outmaneuver the British on the southern end of their defensive positions and stop their counterattacks by using the vaunted 88-mm antiaircraft gun as an antitank weapon. He therefore went on the offensive, grinding out a major advance and finally taking Tobruk.

The British stopped the bleeding only after fierce fighting at El Alamein, mere miles from Alexandria. The stage was thus set for the sixth and final push in this strange seesaw war. This began on October 23, 1942, when the British 8th Army, newly christened and under yet another commander (Bernard Law Montgomery), jumped off for an offensive that would ultimately clear Libya of Axis troops.

The Desert War revealed some hard truths about armored warfare. Because the vehicles consumed fuel that had to be hauled to the front, blitzkrieg worked best over short distances, as in Poland or France. Over North African distances, the system did not work; the result was a “rubber band” effect whereby armies stretched their supply lines to the breaking point and then “snapped back” to their original position. Also, blitzkrieg worked in Europe partly by sowing mass confusion among civilians, who clogged the roads and prevented mobilization and movement. In a thinly populated region such as North Africa, this did not happen, leaving enemy communications and transportation strained but intact. And the Germans enjoyed air superiority in Europe but not in the desert, partly because the Luftwaffe was busy attacking the island of Malta.

Rommel was a tactical but not a strategic or logistical genius. He did not have the strength or supplies to seize and hold the Canal or link with German forces in Russia, and most General Staff officers did not want him to try. In making the attempt, he exposed the entire Axis position on the African continent.

Barnett, Corelli, The Desert Generals (London, 1983)
Rommel’s North Africa Campaign: September 1940-November 1942  by Jack Greene, Alessandro Massignani.

Sunday, September 24, 2017


(History Written)
Edited and Umpired by Gregor Whiley

Orders of Battle
Commonwealth Forces
Valetta Command
(1/1C) Malta #1
(2/ 1C) Malta #2
(3/ 1C) 1st British Brigade
(4/1C) 1st Coastal Defence
Southwest Command
(1/2C) 2nd British Brigade
(2/2C) 2nd Coastal Defence
(3/2C) 3rd British Brigade
(4/2C) 3rd Coastal Defence
Northern Command
(1/3C) 4th British Brigade
(2/3C) 4th Coastal Defence
Axis Forces
7th Fljgr Division
(1/ 1A) 1st/7th Fljg
(2/ 1A) 2nd/7th Fljg
(3/ lA) 186th/Folgore
(4/ 1A) 187th/Folgore
Friuli Division
(1/2A) 11th/Friuli
(2/2A) 12th Friuli
(3/2A) Special Assault
(4/2A) 125th Spza
Liv/Aset Divisions
(1/3A) 33rd/Liv
(2/3A) 34th/Liv
(3/3A) 29th/Aset
(4/3A) 30th/Aset

The parenthesized numbers can be used to identify the various formations on the situation maps.

The British island bastion of Malta was the key to the Mediterranean theatre. If it fell, Axis troops in North Africa could be supplied almost without hindrance and the British would be reduced to impotent and vulnerable enclaves at Gibraltar and Alexandria. 

With this in mind, OKW, the German high command, commissioned a complete staff study for the invasion of Malta. To do this they used a brilliant simulation system called Kampifront which had been devised by one of their staff officers. Not unsurprisingly, the officer who did best at these contests was Colonel Keating, the creator of the system. He was, in a typical display of Teutonic thoroughness, immediately declared the best man for the job, promoted to General on the spot and packed off to Sicily on the next available Ju-52 to take charge of the invasion. 

Meanwhile, the best (the term is relative) British brains had not been lying idle. Over a roast beef dinner in the club one night, Viscount Power, Malta's commander, explained his plans for the island's defence. With the island of Malta represented by a dinner plate, his fixed positions (button mushrooms) would defend against Axis seaborne invaders (thick brown gravy) as they washed ashore. German paratroops (salt and pepper sprinkles) would be surrounded and then overrun as the mobile Commonwealth forces (horse radish sauce) flung the survivors back onto the coastal defenders (the surviving mushrooms) and sealed their fate. 

The Viscount's audience could not fail to be impressed, and the plan, code named Well Done was cooked up straight away. When the mysterious Captain Crummond of the British Secret Service swam ashore one night with a complete set of the German invasion plans, victory seemed assured. The Germans would be done like a dinner! The first paratroops would hit the ground on the evening of March 23rd. 

Tum 4 (Night/Mar 23)
Axis. Paras land at strategic points. Most stay where they are but 4/ lA are sent east to consolidate positions just around Krendi airfield. 

Commonwealth. The only troops on the board are the divisional HQs. The HQ for 3C finds itself in the middle of an enemy drop zone and moves east at full speed. Results. All quiet. With the initial drop made, it is appropriate to review the player's strategies. 

The Commonwealth Plan. Viscount Power foresaw three key elements. Crush the Germans paratroopers at Takali, hold them at Luqa and then take the victors from Takali and meet the Italians on the southwest beach as they struggled ashore. 

The Axis Plan. General Keating would not strike directly at Valetta with his parachutists. Instead, those landing at Takali and Luqa would remain on the defensive, while the rest turned south to deal with the beach defenders from behind. The sea landing troops must have a clear beach to land on. The two key elements of Keating's plans are to capture the southwestern beach de fences and resupply his paras. 

Turn 5 (AM/Mar 24) 

Examine Situation Map A 

Axis. All regiments conduct probe or prepare attacks on the British troops still reacting to their presence except 4/ 1A, which has spotted a lone British tank unit in the village of Krendi, and moves in for the kill with an exploit. The fact that the unit is only a small force invited this attention, and heavy air support has been allocated to the attack. 

Commonwealth. This is the first chance Viscount Power has had to react. 1/1C is sent to attack Takali, 2/1 C is sent to Zebbuj preparatory to driving south, 3/1 C goes to Luqa and 4/1C to Kirkup. Elements of 2C are already in contact around Luqa; those regiments not yet in contact are sent to Luqa and Kirkup to form a defensive line running roughly North - South. The two regiments from 3C are sent straight to Takali to increase the weight of numbers there. In accordance with Viscount Power's original plan, there are now four Commonwealth regiments at or on the way to Takali. 

Results. The unsuspecting tank battalion is killed in one blow but other Axis attacks are inconclusive. Commonwealth troops pour out of Valetta and the eastern beaches in accordance with the Power Plan.

Tum 6 (Noon/Mar 24)
Axis. General Keating has noticed the large weight of troops headed towards Takali but will not change his plan. The defenders there will just have to tough it out. 1/1A is at Luqa and assaulting the British defenders there. 3/1A got the short straw at Takali and is defending desperately. To toughen it up, and hopefully punish its attackers, General Keating allocates heavy air support. 2/1A and 4/1A move to clean up pockets of resistance around Krendi. 

Commonwealth. Many British units are still not in total contact with the enemy and some have to be content with Probe or Support orders in order to concentrate. However, the defenders at Takali are surrounded and an Assault goes in. Results. The Axis assault with heavy air support at Luqa causes heavy losses to the defenders. The static 3.7" AA units defending Luqa airfield decide that emulating 88s is not as glamorous at it may have seemed and rout. The British attack at Takali is stopped cold by the gallant 3/1A (mit Luftwaffe).

Tum 7 (PM/Mar 24)
Axis. Having cleaned things up a bit and ensured an open supply line to 1/1A, 2/1A and 4/1A turn their attentions to the easternmost beach de fender. 1/1A continues the attack in the north while 3/1A defends grimly, again with air support. 

Commonwealth. The attacks on the stubborn defenders at Takali continue, three all told this turn; elsewhere all troops are on the defensive. 

Results. The Axis attacks at the beach fail, but so do the attacks at Takali, again courtesy of the Luftwaffe. Viscount Power was not amused. 

Not only had the Luftwaffe dumped whole plane loads of paratroopers over his otherwise unspoilt island, but they had the damned cheek to come back, dropping bombs and things and spoiling perfectly good set piece attacks. 

Much more of this and Power's plans will be in jeopardy. Power at last becomes aware of the general intent of Keating's plan and realizes that he has no men as yet in a position to assist the beachhead defenders. 

Tum 8 (Night/Mar 24)
There were two night attacks, delivered. One by the British at Takali caused light casualties and the other by the Germans on the beach-front caused no casualties. Both however, were intended to deprive hard pressed troops of the sleep that they undoubtedly needed. 

After the first day General Keating felt matters were going to plan. The defenders at Takali were in reasonable shape, although one unit had 30% casualties. Keating felt that they could hang on until day 4 with only one or two KIAs, a price he felt was acceptable. The beach defenders would be prised out with low level attacks and lots of air support. The situation which Keating most feared, a drive south straight through to the beach had not materialized. 

Viscount Power felt that his initial plan was not working. He had not anticipated either the effectiveness of the Takali defence nor the intrusion of the Luftwaffe. He felt that he might not be able to make it to the beaches as called for by his plan. 

Turn 9 (AM/Mar 25) 

Examine Situation Map B
Axis. The attacks on the beaches continue and a pesky British straggler which is cutting supply to 1/1Aat Luqa is also targeted. 1/1Aassaults at Luqa. The initial elements of 2A are due this tum and the beach defences are still intact. 2A will be sacrificed if necessary to ensure that 3A gets ashore un scathed. Supply is still a worry. 

Commonwealth. Assaults continue at Takali and at Luqa, defense elsewhere. Casualties are low but there are some units at Takali who have been in minor combat with the paras and could do with a rest.
Results. The British take medium losses at Luqa and inflict a similar result at Takali. There are no losses on the beach but two British units rout at Takali. These units were assets from 3C, and should have been taken out of the battle before this. One started the tum with 40% casualties and ended with 80%. It will now be virtually useless for the rest of the game. (It is imperative to check the condition of division assets at all times in the game.) 

T. 10 (Noon/Mar 25)
Axis. 1/1A is forced onto the defensive through lack of supply, caused by that one stubborn British unit. General Keating is annoyed but is relieved by the fact that the blockage is one battalion and not two regiments! In any case, the blocker has been whittled down and 2/1A will exploit in order to remove the unsightly obstruction to the supply lines. Assaults also continue at the beaches. 3/2A. despite having landed in the middle of a defended minefield, is pressed straight into the attack. 

Commonwealth. Viscount Power feels compelled to modify his original plan. Despairing of going through the de fenders of Takali he decides to go around them and orders 1/1C to pull back in order to drive directly south. The other units continue to attack at Takali and also at Luqa, working on the principle that even the Luftwaffe can't be everywhere at once. 

Results. The plucky supply blocker is KIA'd. The defenders at Takali take medium losses but two more British attackers rout. The attackers on the beach take heavy losses without inflicting any but the pressure of numbers tells, and one beach defender finally routs. 

The situation at Takali is very instructive. After the tum on which Power scaled down his attack, the casualties of the defenders read 0, 10, 20, 30 and 70%. The pressure was finally beginning to tell, with the defenders out of supply from the moment they landed. Power abandoned his plan too soon.

Tum 11 (PM/Mar 25)
Axis. Supply for 1A is still poor and all regiments are forced onto the defensive. 3 /2A on the beach is also in very poor shape but together with 1/2A it ordered to attack. Clear the beach or get off it is the order of the day. 

Commonwealth. Attacks continue at Luqa, but no attacks are made at Takali. The regiment that was pulled out is still tangled up and not in a position to fight. 

Results. The Axis and British swap medium losses at Luqa. An Axis defender at Takali finally routs. The British on the beach suffer no losses but 3 Axis battalions rout. 

T. 12 (Night/Mar 25)
Each side makes one-night attack each, with no result apart from the aforementioned lack of sleep. 1/1C, now disengaged, gets caught up in the fighting at Luqa and will not be available for the beach fighting.

It seems appropriate to review the situation at the end of day 2. The British troops are in reasonable shape and have inflicted quite a few casualties. The Axis 1A is in poor shape with 3/1A cut up and surrounded at Takali and 1/1A and 4/1A down to about half strength, although their surviving battalions are in good shape. Regimental supply is poor in every case. 2A has already taken 3 KIAs and 1/2A and 3/1A have significant losses. 

Things look bad for the Axis. However, General Keating is prepared to sacrifice all of 2A if necessary. He feels that 1A can hang on where it is while the beach is cleared. If 3A gets ashore unhindered he expects it to be unstoppable. While Viscount Power's men are in good shape they are not in the right place, and there doesn't seem to be anything that he can do, at this moment, to stop the Axis getting ashore. 

Tum 13 (AM/Mar 26)
Axis. It is time to get serious with the beach defenders, regardless of the state of the attacking troops. Three assaults are ordered with all available air points. 

Commonwealth. Probes are ordered for Takali, in an effort to keep up the pressure and also to distract Axis attention from the beach. 3/1C is ordered into reserve to recover. 
Results. The Axis take a series of losses in their beach attack but KIA one defender. There are also heavy Axis losses at Takali. 

T. 14 (Noon/Mar 26)
Axis. 1A remains on the defensive and 4/1A, having done all it can at the beach, is rested. All four regiments from 2A attack the beach defenders.

Commonwealth. Poor supply at Takali causes Power to break off the attack, just when sustained pressure may have achieved results. Limited attacks continue. 

Results. British attacks at Luqa are inconclusive. A router from each side makes good its escape from the fighting at Takali.

Tum 15 (PM/Mar 26)
Axis. Three regiments from 2A continue to assault the last defender on the beach. 2/1A is in perfect shape and continues to keep the Allies honest at Luqa. 

Commonwealth. Limited attacks continue at Takali, and another regiment is rested. 

Results. The Axis take heavy losses at Takali but KIA the last British beach defender. They now own the beach and the only thing between them and the relief of Takali are the forward elements of the 1/1C which tried, and failed, to make it to the beach. 

T. 16 (Night/Mar 26)
Viscount Power has scraped up 23 night support points from somewhere. Nobody really knows where. Perhaps they are life expired NAAFI rock-cakes fired from 3" mortars, perhaps he bribed the Italian Navy to shell its own positions. In any case, in an action that might well be described as spiteful, he hurls them all at the stubborn defenders of Takali and achieves a KIA. 

Tum 17 (AM/Mar 27) 

Examine Situation Map C 

Both commanders review the situation as they see it at this point in the battle. 

Axis. General Keating is very pleased with the situation as, at last, it is all going according to his original plan. The beach has been secured, and 3A will get ashore without a bullet laid on them. Keating will send 2A to the rescue of the brave men at Takali while 1A goes into reserve to recover. 3A will take the shortest route to Valetta. General Keating's troops have taken heavy casualties but they have got the job done. 2/1A keeps up the assaults, to make way for 3A. 

Commonwealth. Viscount Power readily admits that Plan A did not work. Nor did Plan B as the regiment so detailed failed to make it to the beach. Power does not have high hopes for the imaginatively titled Plan C, which is to fight a delaying action and to try and hold on to Valetta. He will, however, continue to attack at Takali, in an effort to wipe out the defenders and to thus free up his remaining troops there. 

The British keep up the attack at Takali, all other units are either defending or in reserve.
Results. A British defender is KIA'd at Luqa and another Axis defender bites the dust at Takali. This leaves one very brave battalion defending the airfield. 

T. 18 (Noon/Mar 27)
Axis. Working on the (sometimes) militarily sound proposition that If you are in bad shape, the other guy must be even worse, General Keating keeps up the pressure with both 1A and 2A. 

Commonwealth. 3/1C from reserve is sent to a position just south of Zebbuj to hold the line.
Results. Five Axis attacks result only in light casualties for some attackers. Two British attacks at Takali are equally ineffective. 

Tum 19 (PM/Mar 27)
Axis. Further attacks at Luqa, and on the impetuous British unit strung out south of Zebbuj. A requisition for extra Iron Crosses for the defenders at Takali is entered. 

Commonwealth. Power decides to get tough at Takali and orders two exploits against the heroic defenders. Results. British defenders at Luqa and Zebbuj take heavy casualties. The men at Takali, who have clearly been reading up on Rorke's Drift, hold off the British yet again. 

T. 20 (Night/Mar 27)
No combat took place. One Axis regiment was ordered on the road to tour the objectives in the south east to pick up valuable points. 

The Last Days
There is little of excitement to relate from here until the end. The last defenders of Takali finally fell, still awaiting rescue or the return of the Luftwaffe. Their medals never made it either, the requisition being canceled by an Untergruppenfuehrer who felt that it would be a waste of Army resources to send the medals to recipients who would not be around to receive them. 

The British had no option but to put bodies in the way of the Germans and hope to hold on to Valetta and Conspicua, the two high value objectives at the northern end of the Island. The Axis obviously had to grind it out and remove the obstacles between them and the same objectives. Keating's only choice was how many men to do it with. Keating elected to keep almost all his troops in the field, hoping to swamp the defenders by sheer weight of numbers. Whether this was the most correct course is something that we will discuss. 

Examine Situation Map D 

As you can see on the final map, General Keating did not capture Valetta, thanks to some last ditch defence from those valiant British troops that survived to the end. General Keating did, however, capture Conspicua and the 150 point swing was enough to give him the game. Had Viscount Power retained both Valetta and Conspicua, then he would have won the game. 

There are some useful lessons to be learnt from this battle which will stand you in good stead whenever you play a Battlefront scenario. 

Strategy. Keating's strategy would seem to be correct, especially as he ended up winning. His strategic priority, right from the start, was to clear the beach and allow his 3rd division to land unmolested. When Keating achieved this he had essentially won the game. 

Power's overall assessment of the situation was also correct, as he intended to tie Keating up on the beach. His choice of methods to do this was questionable. Power expected to be able to overrun the paras at Takali in two days. However, the paras were elite troops and would be at their strongest when they landed. This and the Luftwaffe were enough to hold Power up. His second plan, which involved a smaller attacking force at Takali and a push straight to the beach, should have been his first. The smaller forces would have tied up the paras just as well, and most importantly, cut them off from supply. Without supply they would slowly deteriorate and be much easier to pick off later.
Paradoxically, Power switched to Plan B just as Plan A was finally about to work. 

Since the troops withdrawn from the attack still didn't make it to the beach, getting caught up again in the fighting, Power was caught changing horses in midstream. Sometimes it is better to persevere with an original plan, accepting that there will be some performance penalty, rather than to try alternatives which only make things worse. 

Tactically, Keating had a better appreciation of qualities of his troops. There are two ways to remove opponents, the hard way and the easy way. 

The hard way means exposing your troops to the shot and shell of the enemy. The easy way is to cut your enemies line of supply, wait until he runs out of shot and shell, and then get him. 

Keating did not have any chance of cutting Power's supply, as Power could arrange his HQs anywhere in the hinterland. However, Keating was very much aware of the opportunities Power had and moved firmly to remove them. 

Although Keating wanted very much to start removing the beach defenders, he spent all of the first day removing British units between the beach and Luqa airfield, which were threatening his supply line. If the men at Luqa were also out of supply, then Power's attacks on that flank would have been much more effective. 

Keating did make one mistake, electing to make his attacks in the final phase of the battle with all his troops. He would have been better served by rotating his troops in and out of reserve. If there are too many attackers they just get in each other’s way. 

By the same token, Power's marshaling of the cooks, clerks and wine waiters in the final defence of Valetta was excellent. 

To summarize, Keating had a good plan which he implemented well. Power had a not quite so good plan, which he abandoned prematurely and his alternative plan did not work. Even so, it was very close at the end, and Power's just-in-time defence almost saved the day.