Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Iron Front Liberation 44 - AAR - A Pak 40 Platoon (-) Protects the Flank of an Armored Counterattack - Mission Debrief

The almost Lanchesterian precision of armored warfare in open terrain is sometimes uncanny. Marching into battle with two antitank guns against an unknown number of enemy tanks was not a choice but a necessity.

Note: In this entry I am playing solo and switching between soldiers for better control of the platoon assets and to avoid any sudden cut from the narrative due to the untimely death of the virtual soldier I am controlling. Because of that, this story is written in third person. This doesn't mean I am not assuming full responsibility for the successes and failures of the mission. :)

Somehow accustomed to the portrayal in some old war games, the antitank gun was always for me a more or less fixed position, kill-or-die in place type of weapon. Not until I started to pay attention to what some of the military books and biographies had to say on the subject, the tactical use of some of these antitank guns became an interest that I am attempting to catch up with.

If you remember the previous entry, this is a vignette of a platoon (-) of German Pak-40s (2 guns, the minimal number of guns that German doctrine allowed at the time of WWII) providing support (flank protection) for a company of tanks in an offensive tactical mission (counterattack). Because the antitank weapon can deliver direct fire only, this mission requires adequate tactical mobility (can't attack if you are sitting pretty at the line of departure).

The tactical mission is to provide flank protection for a company of tanks that will counterattack Soviet forces moving northwest.
The venerable Opel truck was the prime mover for this mission. It's low speed in cross-country would make it very difficult to catch up with fast moving enemy or friendly armor. Iron Front is very forgiving about the real-life limitations of this type of vehicles and bogging down or braking a differential due to the strains of terrain is not modeled. The high silhouette of the truck is also a great liability in an armor-heavy battlefield.

The platoon commander had hopes of a long-range engagement from a position hundreds of meters northeast of the town of Otoka Grabinska (see map above). However, the town itself sits at the top of ridge (treeline in the background) that obscures the vulnerable flank of the Panzers. Any type of flank protection will require deploying the guns in Otoka Grabinska proper. Note the red rim (German artillery troops) in the shoulder strap of the soldier.
Driving vehicles is one of the most unpleasant annoyances of the ArmA 2 engine. The platoon was lucky to find a wide, building-free gap in the layout of the Otoka Grabinska town.
The guns were towed, unlimbered and pushed into their final positions with no small effort. Gun #1 (green romboid icon between two buildings across the street) and Gun #2 (foreground) are shown. The enemy is advancing from left to right, with the main force at the top or on the far side of the ridge in the far background. Enemy flanking forces threatening the German panzers have to use the shallow drop in front, or the town itself. See main text for details.
The deployment of the two guns deserves some commentary. Given the unknown forces ratio, the commander had to assume the worst case scenario (more enemy tanks than guns). In such situations, only  fire from positions in defilade can offer some chance of success. The spaces between the buildings on the far side of the road can provide such thing, because they have fields of flanking fire against enemy armor advancing through the shallow draw from left to right (see above picture). However, there is also the possibility that the enemy armor could advance through the town itself, again from left to right, in which case any antitank gun deployed between the buildings would be outflanked and caught from behind. This is a big irony in this mission: the German antitank guns are providing flank protection but suffering from a non-protected flank themselves. Orienting one anti tank gun to the left flank, pointing towards the length of the road would divest considerable firepower from the main field of fire (in front of the town) and, even worse, would not provide defile against road-bound armor attempting to outflank the platoon. So it was decided to deploy the two guns in defilade with a more or less shared fields of fire on the open draw in front of the town,  and echeloned in order to provide some left flank protection for the forward gun against road-bound armor crossing the town.

The view from the position of gun #1 (front gun).
The view from the position of gun #2 (rear gun). Gun #1 is across the street (green romboid icon in the right).
The mission was terrifying. The engines of tanks could be heard all around the place. It was impossible for these men to figure out if the tanks were in the town or just moving across the open terrain in front of them. One Soviet T-34 moved through the aiming reticle of gun #1, just 10 meters ahead with its turret trained elsewhere. Neither the tank crew could see the German gun, nor the gun crew could aim and fire. The Soviet tank has escaped the German's trap and moved ahead in search of German armor. Defiles can also protect targets ...

And then, with no less than 5 Soviet T-34s moving at the far edge of the draw in front of the German guns, all hell broke loose. Sometimes obscured by the smoke of guns and the dust and debris lifted by missing rounds, the duel was never in short supply of hate and fear.

Feuer Frei!
Gun #2 (rear) and all the men serving it succumbed to a well placed enemy shell. It is not known from where. Gun #1 has already dispatched 3 Soviet T-34s, but the crew was growing anxious of the seemingly close sounds of a tank engine.

Mid-battle view from gun #1. Note the two enemy tanks destroyed in the background. A third destroyed enemy tank can't be seen because of that tree. 
Gun #1, a few seconds before its crew was killed by machine gun fire an enemy tank that appeared across the road, near the top left corner of this image. 
The men of this platoon will never know what it was of the tanks they were protecting. They were impaired for a lack of means to accomplish a difficult mission, but they were doomed because they choose a course of action they couldn't sustain.

In the words of New Zealand Brigadier Howard Kippenberger, "nothing was right except the courage".


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