04 May 2022
And no one brought any grunts?
Words by Robert Piepenbrink. Photos by The Editor: This article is peppered with some – hopefully – inspirational tank shots gleaned from some great show games. Ed.
The treadheads showed up at your place with their favourite toys--but the other arms? Somehow the infantry are still in the blister packs. Just not as exciting. Fear not! Here’s a couple small battles which can be fought out purely with AFVs, and odds are you haven’t heard of either one.
ST LUCIEN: 9 NOVEMBER 1942
You know those battles for which we have scaled maps and OOB so we can fight them out to test rules? This is not one of those battles. Here’s what we know:
As part of Operation TORCH, US forces were attacking Oran and the nearby Tafaraoui Airfield. The 1st Battalion 1st US Armoured Regiment, LTC John Knight Waters commanding, was south of city and airbase, covering against Vichy forces coming up from Sidi-bel-Abbes to the southeast. A French mechanized column approached the town of St Lucien (now Zahana) and tanks halted on a hill with a clear field of fire to the northwest.
So nearly as I can tell, open except for two hills an uncertain distance apart. Since the T30’s on the American hill could hit the French hill, but seem to have been hard to hit in return, let’s guess about 1,000 yards between them. Presumably the French hill: to the southeast-- was big enough to contain most or all of their forces at normal intervals, and let them assume a hull-down position. The American hill: probably on their left: has to have been big enough to hold the three T-30’s, but beyond that we’re guessing.
B Company, 1/1 US Armoured Regiment: say 15 Stuart tanks in three platoons of five with a headquarters tank for the company commander, one Captain (later Major) William R. Tuck. Attached were the battalion Recon Platoon (Lt William Beckett) with jeeps and AAMG and the Assault Gun Platoon of probably three T-30’s: 75mm guns mounted on M3 halftracks.
Good question. The US official history unhelpfully calls them “E-35’s.” Christopher Miskimon, on the Warfare History Network, says Renault R-35’s, and Steven Zaloga, in French Tanks of World War II (2) says the French tanks were the more lightly armoured D1’s of the 2e RCA (Regiment des Chars Autonome?) If Zaloga’s right, we can make a decent guess about numbers. Since the 90 remaining D1’s had been divided among three RCA’s presumably we’re looking at about 30 tanks in two squadrons. There have to have been at least 14 of something. No source mentions any supports.
The French appear to have won the toss and elected to receive. Captain Tuck placed his assault guns on a hill “about 800 yards from St Lucien”: meaning probably south of the town itself--then moved out two platoons up and one 500 yards back. One platoon would engage the French frontally, while the other two would engage “from the right.” French right? American right? Doesn’t say. Anyway manoeuvring to engage the more vulnerable side armour of the French tanks. The French lost 14 tanks immobilized before withdrawing to one Stuart and one half-track damaged. One account speaks of 14 “ruined” French tanks, but an American eye-witness describes French crews working hard a few days later to repair the tanks, so I think we have to assume this is the usual armoured warfare penalty of defeat: whoever loses a battle loses all his damaged tanks, while the winner can repair most of his losses, and sometimes not even admit them.
So there you go: a triumph of manoeuvre and superior equipment over numbers, and a pleasant afternoon for the tanker wargamer.
You don’t have French Char D1’s? No problem. As I said, maybe it was Renaults. What difference does it make? Maybe more than you think. The D1’s have a 47mm gun, but thin armour. Presumably the French commander hoped the hill would make up for that, but of course taking a static position gave the Americans a chance to manoeuvre to a flank. Renault 35’s are a pretty close match for the Stuarts in armour and armament. But lack radios, which the D1’s had, so manoeuvre would have been more difficult.
You don’t have either? Relax. Look at it the other way. What you actually have are four types of vehicles, and if you pay attention to their strengths and weaknesses, you can play this battle with whatever you have to hand.
- Replace the Stuarts with whatever your standard tank is, and define everything else in relation to that standard tank.
- The T-30’s replacement has to have a more powerful main gun, but weaker armour.
- The Recon Platoon has to be replaced with something else faster than the tanks, but with no armour or firepower worth mentioning. If you’re playing a game like OGRE with unlimited observation, they’re purely decorative.
- You need about twice as many of a single tank as of Blue Force’s main tank.
- If you’re replacing R-35’s, you want tanks more or less the equal of Blue Force’s tanks, but with severe command and control problems.
- If you’re replacing D1’s, you want tanks the next grade down from Blue Force’s in gun and armour: capable of penetrating, but only at closer range or striking from the flank or rear.
The Red Force hill has to provide protection for at least half of Red Force at normal intervals, and the rules have to provide some advantage for being hull down, which can be nullified if Blue Force can reach Red Force’s flanks and rear. Blue Force hill has to be near enough for the assault guns to provide covering fire, and far enough away that Red Force can’t hit back effectively from their own position. Note that there must be a turn limit so that Blue Force can’t just sit there with three assault guns clearing the Red Force hill, and the board must be wide enough relative to the miniatures that Red can’t use the board edges to protect his flanks. (Not that any miniatures gamer would do such a thing, of course!)
As always, smaller battles tend to have fewer decision points. Here, the unknown French commander appears to have taken up a good defensive position and trusted the Americans to make a frontal assault so his position would compensate for the weakness of his armour, or to avoid a battle of manoeuvre against a radio-equipped enemy. Things started going wrong for him as soon as Captain Tuck chose to fire and manoeuvre. Tuck’s choice was not without risk, however: whether one has a base of fire and a manoeuvre element or one has divided forces in the presence of the enemy is pretty much a matter of whether or not it worked. It’s also worth remembering that this was a sort of “first contact” battle, neither side knew what the other side was bringing to the table, and a truly sinister umpire could let them remain in ignorance, only finding out by experience such things as penetration range and vulnerability. If the umpire did the die rolling and the players only saw the results… Anyway, there’s your battle. Go forth and conquer!
What’s that? A week’s gone by and they still haven’t painted the infantry? Let’s try again: and this time, the Stuarts can be the outclassed tanks.
CHOUIGUI PASS: 26 NOVEMBER 1942
Again, here’s what we have:
The French Army in North Africa having decided that maybe they were one of the Western Allies, American, British and French forces moved east in a move to capture Tunis and end the war in North Africa, while the Germans were now pouring troops into Tunis to send the campaign into extra innings. Among the eastbound Allies were our old friends the 1/1 US Armoured Regiment, with orders to seize and hold Chouigui (“Chewy Gooey”) Pass, the eastern end of which is only nine miles west of Tunis. Seizing turned out to be fairly straightforward. Holding was a little more tricky. As of the morning of the 26th, the almost intact 1/1 AR holds the complete pass: but the panzers are coming to demand a recount and in the first clash between German and American armour, to give the Americans an inferiority complex which may be useful later on.
Roughly, a rectangle maybe two miles north-south and three miles east-west. To the east is the west end of Chouigui Pass: got that? The forces here are fighting over the west end, and the east end is “off board” somewhere. A good hard-surface road runs from the northeast corner of the board, looping south and then west, but running out of pavement along the way. Along the road are two walled farm complexes: “Coxen’s Farm” to the northeast, and St Joseph’s Farm to the southwest. Between the road and the Tine river is a low hill. There’s another almost on the southern board edge, and an olive grove along the road: concealment, perhaps, but not cover.
- 1/1 AR Lt. Col. John Knight Waters
- A Company (Maj Siglin) was deployed behind a hill to the southeast.
- B Company (Maj Tuck) was in hull defilade between the Tine River and a ridge 50-100 yards west of the road.
- C Company (Maj Rudolph Barlow) guarded the eastern end of the pass, and so was not present for the engagement.
- In addition to the Stuarts, Waters had:
- A platoon of three T30 HMCs: 75mm M1A1 75mm pack howitzer mounted on a modified M-3 half-track, Lt Ray C. Wacker (No AT ammo. HE and smoke.)
- A platoon of three M4 HTMCs: 81mm mortars mounted on an M-2 halftrack
- A recon element tasked down from the regiment: presumably of platoon size--consisting either of White scout cars, jeeps with .50 cal machine guns, or some combination of the two.
An unidentified company of the 190th Panzer Battalion. 13 tanks of which at least 6 were Panzer IV (F2? “longs” certainly.) And the remainder Panzer III. There is also reference by American officers to one or more “Italian tanks.” Since German sources mention no Italian forces in the column, a platoon of Panzer II’s seems more likely.
A reconnaissance element was described by Americans as “Italian armoured cars.” Since, again, there don’t seem to have been any Italians, Sdkfz 222’s seem more likely than AV 41’s. (Be charitable: battles are considerably dustier and more confusing than the average wargame table, and most of us have been “doing” WWII much longer than any of the combatants.)
Behind the armoured cars and tanks were:
- A parachute engineer company and
- An infantry company of the Tunis Regiment, both truck-mounted. However neither company took part in the main engagement, and they would in any case violate our “no infantry” premise.
The Germans came on in “road column” from the northeast with recon elements in the lead. They were first engaged by the T30’s firing at about 1,000 yards from an olive grove. They did no damage, switched to firing smoke rounds and fell back. But it’s possible they forced the German commander to withdraw his armoured cars and lead with his tanks, because the German forces drove right past the ridge concealing B Company, and went into a head to head engagement with A company, coming up from the south. A Company, unsurprisingly, got the worst of it, but while they were engaged, B Company attacked from the German right flank and rear. Firing at extremely close range, The Americans were able to destroy or disable 6 Panzer IV’s and 1 Panzer III before the Germans withdrew: an excellent trade from the American point of view. (The German commander was relieved that evening.)
What, you don’t have a 1942 US light tank battalion with all the trimmings? Relax. For tactical purposes, this is:
- 52 light tanks: fast, but not a lot of punch--organized in three companies of three platoons. And actually only two companies take part. Say 30 tanks and an HQ vehicle.
- A platoon of 3 self-propelled howitzers capable of being used in a direct-fire mode
- A platoon of 3 self-propelled mortars which can only be used in indirect fire, and
- A recon platoon capable of reporting by radio, but without any armament which will make any difference to the opposing tanks.
Something on the order of half as many tanks, but half of them – maybe 7 or 8 tanks – have a more powerful gun and thicker armour. The others are as good as Blue Force or a hair better. (Note that to get the tactical balance right, even the best Red Force tanks must be vulnerable at the sides and rear, at least at short range.)
- Say 3 weaker tanks.
- Maybe 3 armoured cars.
Can you find or improvise those? I thought you could.
The American player must get to close range, and as soon as possible, He simply can’t win a medium to long-range firefight. This suggests dividing his forces to pin the Germans while he manoeuvres toward their flanks and rear, and this, in turn, raises the prospect of defeat in detail. The German player must keep the engagement at a range at which the Stuarts can’t penetrate his armour and avoid being overwhelmed by superior numbers. Ideally, he needs to defeat the Americans in detail. But they may not cooperate.
An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943. Atkinson, Rick. New York. Henry Holt & Co, 2002.
American Knights: The Untold Story of the Men of the Legendary 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion. Failmezger, Victor. New York and London, Osprey Publishing 2015.
Northwest Africa: Seizing the Initiative in the West. Howe, George F. Washington. Government Printing Office 1957.
Armour Command. Washington. Robinett, Paul. McGregor & Werner, 1958.
French Tanks of World War II (2). Zaloga, Steven J. New York and London, Osprey, 2014.
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