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Steel Fury - the stock campaign

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Refighting the Second Battle of Kharkov in Graviteam's classic WW2 tanksim!




Despite acquiring Steel Fury - Kharkov 1942 (SF) not long after release, I only started seriously playing the tanksim years later, when modders added more (especially later-war) AFVs and generally extended SF's scope beyond the Second Battle of Kharkov in early summer 1942. So I never got around to playing the stock SF campaigns…until recently, when I decided it was a shame not to give them a tryout, at least. So that's what I did, and here's how it went!

The real battle
The First Battle of Kharkov in the Ukraine was fought in autumn 1941 during Operation Barbarossa, when the German 6th Army (later destroyed at Stalingrad) captured the city. The Second Battle - the one featured in SF - came in early summer 1942. Having thown the Germans back from the gates of Moscow over the winter of 1941-2, the Red Army's next major offensive came further south, in May 1942, with  ferocious (and initially successful) concentric attacks aimed at retaking Kharkov. However, the Wehrmacht - including once more 6th Army - had been planning an attack of their own, code-named Operation Fredericus. With these forces, the Germans soon stopped and then rolled back and utterly crushed the Soviets, who had, it seems, overestimated their capabilities and underestimated those of the still-formidable Wehrmacht. A more durable and decisive victory over the Germans would have to wait…for about six months, as it turned out. The Red Army had learnt its lesson and the next big offensive, when it came, would see the tables turned and 6th Army annihilated at Stalingrad. But as far as the Second Battle of Kharkov went, the laurels belonged to the Wehrmacht.






While SF does support campaigns - and I believe you can create a player profile for each - there's nothing like M1 Tank Platoon II's crew management facility. You will see your crew members moving around inside, and sitting at open hatches of, your tank. But they and the crews of your other platoon tanks ('wingmen' if you like) are annonymous. You can review each tank's/crew's achievements at the end of each mission - but that's about it. Each campaign is basically a sequence of scripted missions which, reasonably enough, follow the course of the actual battle, which you cannot change. So if you're rooting for the RKKA - the Red Army of Peasants and Workers - well, you can destroy all the fascists you like, but it's still gonna end in tears before bedtime. Sorry, tovaritch. Better luck at Stalingrad.




Unit affiliation isn't a big thing with Steel Fury. Whereas the campaigns in Ultimation's classic Panzer Commander placed you from the start in a famous tank division (complete with formation insignia in the campaign selection screen) in SF you learn which unit you're with, when you see the first mission briefing. So it's all a bit anonymous, with no real sense of role-playing. However, you do get a short introductory video, with historical newsreel footage and captions which set the scene. After that, you can pick the opening mission from the list of those available for the campaign - just one, to begin with. Complete one mission and the next one in the sequence is added to the list. I think I'm right in saying that this happens regardless of whether you won or not. In my book, it's fine that you can't alter significantly the course of history, and good that you aren't stuck with having to replay unsuccessful missions, before you can progress to the next one.


The stock Steel Fury campaigns
Out-of-the-box, I believe SF provides three campaigns based on the Second Battle of Kharkov, as follows:
Friedericus 1  (Wehrmacht)
Soviet Army, Group South      
Soviet Army, Group North   


To these, my modded install adds variants with different tanks. I opted to fight for the Wehrmacht. If I recall right, the stock Fredericus campaign starts you off in a Panzer IV with a short-barreled, low velocity 7.5 cm gun, only later getting the longer-barreled weapon with decent armour-piercing capability. If you're not 'well up' on your panzers, one grey panzer might look very much like another; but the Panzer IV below - an early Ausf. F model, with the short, stubby gun - exhibits the eight road wheels per side and the longer, boxier hull, which distinguish it from the 'six a side', more compact Panzer III, pictured below that again. And though the Panzer III's gun is a smaller calibre, in this case it has a much longer barrel and thus penetrates more armour.






So...keen to start with a gun which would give me a fighting chance against the Red Army's finest, I opted to play the Panzer III version of the campaign, knowing I would get from the outset a long 5 cm gun - not as good as a long 7.5 but better than the short version of either weapon - better for dealing with tanks, at any rate. Especially big, bad tanks like these:




Are you perhaps sitting there thinking 'What a wuss! Why doesn't he just man up and get on with it?' If so, I would suggest you might like to read this account of one of the Germans' most unsettling early encounters with the Klimenti Voroshilov heavy tank.  Just one of them in this case, which for 24 hours single-handledly held up a German regimental combat team from 6th Panzer Division, meantime defying various attempts at its destruction. For all their poor ergonomics and comparatively crude finish, the Germans learned to show Soviet tanks like the KV and T-34 a healthy respect.


Of course, the Soviets also still had lots of less formidable tanks, like different light tanks and the BT-5 'fast tank' below, with its US-style Christie suspension, speedy but lightly-armoured and with the ability to run on its road wheels instead of tracks, perhaps useful to save wear on approach marches but mechanically a wasteful concept.




There might also be some British 'lend lease' tanks, I knew. The Soviet 45mm anti-tank guns were dangerous enough and their 76.2mm field guns had a good A/T capability. Weapons like this would be dug in and hard to spot, but a priority target for my tanks, in any attack.




This was going to be no sinecure!



The first mission!
I neglected to take a screenshot of the mission brief but the screens below show the ground and the disposition of our forces, soon after I loaded up the mission. Tanks - my platoon's Panzer IIIs - are the blue diamonds on the upper screenshot. The infantry's SPWs (Schutzenpanzerwagen, SdKfz 250 and 251 armoured half-track APCs) are the blue pointy-nosed rectangles, over to my left.


In short, it's late May 1942 and my unit, Panzer Regiment 201 of 23 Panzer Division, is to support panzer grenadiers in a two-phase operation. First, we are to assist the grenadiers in destroying enemy defensive positions - marked in red on the lower map - on the nearer edge of a wood. Then in Phase 2, we are to sieze and hold the nearby village of Nepokrytoe, which is just off the top left of the map in the lower pic, a few hundred metres beyond the left-hand side of that big wood. .





As usual in SF missions and campaigns - though it's rarely made clear in briefings - you are in command of a platoon of tanks, usually three. The missions themselves tend to be for a company-level operation, a sort of self-contained or scaled down representation of a larger battle. This mission's briefing gave me a reasonably clear idea of our tasks and indicated that artillery and the Luftwaffe (which latter I saw no sign of) would be supporting us. As usual the mission briefing - 'orders' would be a better title - is in a structured format, perhaps Soviet as it's not British or US (which closely resembled and evolved into the standard NATO format, namely Ground-Situation-Mission-Execution-Service/Support-Command & Signals) and possibly not WW2 German either. I find the SF 'orders' a bit repetitive yet short on some of the detail a company commander would put into even a quickly-made plan and set out in his verbal orders to the participating platoon commanders, in the company Orders Group.
Nevertheless, having seen the briefing, it's always best to do a 'combat appreciation' before you start this sort of mission and so make a plan of how you intend to proceed. Aim - Enemy - Ground - Plan is an abbreviated format I was taught long ago (by an RM Commando officer, as it happened) and found quite useful. Should I go left, centre or right, was what it boiled down to, for Phase 1. The centre looked too devoid of cover and likely exposed to direct fire from all three marked enemy positions - a slow uphill run into the centre of a storm of enemy fire, targets on a two-way range. Looking at the lie of the land, I decided to risk taking the time to switch flanks and go left. Over there, I'd be able to make use of the dead ground the contours suggested should lie next to a road running towards the wood's left-hand edge; which road would also help me to maintain direction. Once over there, I could push up in comparative safety and from the flank, support the infantry by rolling up the enemy positions from left to right, concentrating on one at a time, instead of taking them all on at once. I could do much the same by going right flanking instead, but to get up onto the enemy's flank from a covered approach, I'd have to open up much too wide a gap with the panzer grenadiers. So left flanking it would be.
Unfortunately, in SF there's no way of discussing and co-ordinating plans with the commander of the infantry you're often supporting, or with other friendly forces. For example, you cannot temporarily assume command of the whole force and make a plan designed to integrate the fire and movement of tanks, infantry and supporting fire. Instead, your options usually are - either make and execute your own plan, or just conform to the infantry's movements, supporting them more closely and directly - tanks and infantry attacking on the same axis, if you will. I knew from past SF missions that the infantry tend just to rush straight at the objective. But I decided that this time, tanks and infantry would attack on separate axes. I accepted the risk that the infantry, motoring up to the Effective Fire Line in their nippy armoured 'battle taxis', would get ahead of me and maybe suffer serious losses before I was in position. But I like to play a more cautious, tactical game; if the grenadiers want instead to re-stage the Charge of the Light Brigade, well, on their own heads be it. C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre.




...to be continued!

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Advance to contact!


Plan made, I started the mission. As I usually do at that point, I went to the external view, switched to the tank commander (TC) position, then popped open the hatch. Commanders of non-Soviet tanks often operated 'heads out' for a better view, so a totally closed up tank in a sim tends to look like some sort of remotely-controlled drone rather than a tank in action. Happily, I knew my decently-animated virtual TC would duck automatically, if and when needed! Next, I switched to the gunner position and loaded a High Explosive round, which seemed likely to be the most useful round to have 'up the spout' on this mission. Then I ordered my platoon to 'Do as I do!' and into line formation, in close order (from the map screen, there being no hotkeys for all this).


Good to go! Back in the external view, I ordered the driver to turn left and to move off quickly in that direction. One day, I will try the discipline of playing strictly from the TC view; but I tend to play most tanksims as gunner, from which - in SF as in most other tanksims - you can also carry out some TC functions, like giving orders to driver and loader. So that's how I played this mission.


For a while, our three grey panzers seemed to be on their own, the infantry's SPWs being in dead ground, over on the left flank towards which I was now headed. The half-tracks soon appeared, drove across our front from left to right and, as I feared they would, began to get ahead of us, in the direction of the enemy. Oh, for goodness sake! Why such a hurry? Haven't those grenadiers heard the German equivalent of the old Scottish soldier's saying, that no man rushes to a market, where there's nothing to be bought but blows?




It quickly got worse. The slight slope we were traversing meant our tanks' speed soon fell off, despite my urging our driver to speed up. Worse, my other two panzers were lagging behind me. But I was loath to slow down to let them catch up. At any moment, those SPWs might hit contact. The sooner I caught them up, the better.


I reached a spot near the corner of the ploughed field across which the SPWs were racing. Here, I swung half right, scanning from my gunsight for targets which might pose a threat to the grenadiers. I knew that while I scanned as gunner, the AI would scan as tank commander and direct me onto any targets he spotted. But there was nothing to be seen or shot at!




I swung back to the left and moved off again, ordering my other two panzers, who had finally begun to catch up, into single file (column) formation. At that very moment there was a bang and the half-tracks in the middle of the advancing herd seemed to lurch to a halt. Evidently, they had come over the gentle crest and into the line of fire of the Soviet positions along the distant treeline. And with my tanks too far behind to do anything about it! Now the grenadiers would pay for it! But then I realised it was our artillery, firing on the still-hidden enemy positions. Phew! Disaster averted...or postponed, at any rate.




Back on the level, my speed built up again and I finally began to overhaul the SPWs, which, cleverly enough, seemed to have shaken out into line abreast, for the assault on the enemy positions. Our timing seemed to be working out all right, after all. Not far ahead now, I could see the treeline coming into sight, where lay the enemy.




I slowed down a little to help my still-lagging platoon-mates catch me up and edged left. As I passed the line of halted SPWs, I could see the grenadiers beginning to dismount for the final assault. I kept moving and swung my turret slightly left, anticipating where the first enemy would likely come into sight. As with tank commander closed up, advancing with your gun always at twelve o'clock in a combat situation looks unrealistic - instead, scan, and in between, keep your gun laid in the direction of the most likely threats!



So far, apart from some desultory artillery fire at the enemy positions, not a shot had been fired, as far as I could tell. I didn't expect this state of affairs could last much longer. And I was right!


...to be continued!

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'Assault infantry and tanks must arrive on the objective together' *


*'Introduction to the attack by a company group by day (non-nuclear)', tactical précis 26, RMAS c.1976


The shooting match now suddenly kicked off and tracers flew in various and sundry directions. For our part, things had looked a bit shaky for a while, but in the end, the timing of our combined assault on the enemy positions had come together nicely. Tanks and infantry had arrived on the objective more or less simultaneously, textbook fashion, for maximum shock effect. There were some 'knife-rest' obstacles around, but they didn't much hinder our vehicles and were no bother at all to the dismounted grenadiers who skirmished into and through the enemy positions in fine style.



The whole time this was going on, my AI tank commander called in various targets - entrenched Soviet infantry - which I duly engaged with HE and MG fire. Things were now moving very quickly and my plan to roll up the enemy positions from left to right went by the wayside. Instead, the tide of troops, SPWs and panzers just seemed to swamp the Soviets, all along the line.



Firing died away as the supply of targets dried up. My platoon-mates had drifted off to the right, helping on their own initiative to eliminate the more distant enemy positions. I called them back into formation as the infantry dashed this way and that, seemingly mopping up and re-organising.



A quick look at the map was now in order. Our Phase 2 objective was the village of Nepokrytoe. This was not far beyond the left edge of the woods which lay behind the line of Soviet defences we had just cleared. I could see from the map that the ground fell off gradually down towards the village and that some enemy positions were marked up, between us and our objective. I quickly made an unsophisticated plan for Phase 2. At full speed, I would lead the platoon out to the left of the woods, quickly turning right to face Nepokrytoe and finding us such cover as I could. From the best fire positions available I would engage first the intermediate Soviet positions then Nepokrytoe itself, shooting the grenadiers onto the objective. Off we went, towards the corner of the woods.






Somewhere around the other side of the trees, columns of smoke arose from what must be our objective, evidently the work or our gunners...or our airmen, though I hadn't noticed them at work. No time to ponder that now! I roared out into the open and looked for targets and cover. It wasn't long before I found both.






Halting in a convenient but shallow fold in the ground, I quicky started shooting up some Soviet trenches just ahead, where I could see the heads of the defenders bobbing up and down in the grass.




A few fell to my fire while the others kept their heads down. Meanwhile, my other two panzers came up roughly on either side of me and also started shooting. As they did so, the dismounted grenadiers resumed their own advance, closely supported by their half-tracks. Things were now happening pretty fast.



The opposition in the nearest trenches seemed to evaporate and I switched my attention to the village itself. My tank commander called out some infantry targets but they seemed to be flitting between the buildings or fences and I had difficulty picking them up. Suddenly, came the dreaded call of an anti-tank gun. Following the tank commander's directions - which if you have them turned on, are supported by little amber-coloured direction arrows and target markers, on screen - I quickly laid my guns onto the A/T gun and cut lose with HE, showering him with tracer in between main gun rounds and seeing the crew slump to the ground and lie still. No sooner had the gun been silenced, than my tank commander was already directing me onto another target.




This time, it was a tank! A British Valentine, a small and lightly-armed but tough Infantry Tank, trundled out from the centre of the village, left of a burning house. A half-tracked SPW headed for the same spot, obviously caught by surprise, almost stood on his nose as he braked sharply to a halt, then began to reverse.




I fired off at the Valentine the HE round I had 'up the spout' and ordered an AP round loaded next. The enemy tank kept coming, swinging out to my left, while the SPW continued to back up rather desperately. I let fly with AP rounds, firing as fast as my gunner could chamber them. The Valentine stopped suddenly and flared up on fire. The crew bailed out and ran for it, some of them burning like their tank. Meanwhile, one of my tanks had arrived from the right, also intent on dealing with the threat, but the job was already done. Miraculously, the SPW seemed to have escaped destructions's hand.




The firefight was not yet over, though. My tank commander was already directing me onto yet another armoured target, this time what looked like a T-60 light tank, advancing on our flank to the right of Nepokrytoe. I put a couple of rounds into him and my boss, assessing the target as done for, wasted no time, putting me onto some troops in a trench, to the right of the knocked-out T-60. Next came another T-60, up on the hillside to the right of the village. The light tank was cracking off short bursts from his 20mm cannon at an unseen target further right so I wasted no time in letting him have it. To my surprise, he only shut up shop and fell silent after about my fourth round.




That target, too, shot up to my boss's satisfaction, I moved ahead again, halting in another slight dip in the ground, closer to the village and opening up some new lines of fire. From here I engaged some more Soviet troops in trenches, including one of those distinctive Maxim medium MGs with the wheeled, shielded mount. He was barely visible in the long grass, but could obviously be seen more clearly by the tank commander, up in his cupola.






By the time I had dealt with the Soviet MG, things had started to settle down. The grenadiers seemed to have mostly disappeared into the village. Without bothering to reverse out from my position and resume my advance from a different direction - I was only in pretty scant cover to begin with - I rolled straight ahead and up to the village. Here I halted briefly, before driving into Nepokrytoe to scan my arcs for any fresh targets. Then on again, picking up one of my platoon-mates again in the process. Side-by-side about 30 metres apart, we rolled cautiously through the village - or what was left of it - and halted on the other side, ready for any counterattack. I parked up in what looked like a bomb crater...maybe those flyboys had been on the job, after all.



No further enemies appeared. Phase 2 complete - mission accomplished. So it was time to take stock, have a little nosey round the battlefield and in particular, find out what had happened to my third panzer, who was no-where to be seen.


...to be continued!

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The butcher's bill




One of the nice features of Steel Fury - Kharkov 1942 is the ability, after a mission, to roam the virtual battlefield from vehicle to vehicle (or heavy weapon) and examine their hits and other vital statistics. Starting with my own tank, I doscovered that someone else had got the credit for the A/T gun I had engaged, as it wasn't listed amongst my 'kills'. Neverthess I had done well enough, being credited with two light tanks, the Valentine and the Maxim MG.




My missing panzer was not hard to spot. He had come to grief in fairly spectactular fashion. A review of his stats showed that he was a victim of that Valentine. How he came to be upside down, I never found out.




Although I hadn't noticed it in the heat of the moment, the SPWs had lost two of their number during Phase 1. One half-track lay a few hundred metres from the initial enemy positions, another lay just short of them. Neither vehicle had burned and both would have been recoverable and likely soon back in service.




The rest of the SPWs were either parked up or motroing around Nepokrytoe, as their grenadiers completed the mopping up of our Phase 2 objective. These thin-skinned AFVs often seem to suffer heavily in SF attacking missions and while sad a couple had been knocked out - along with one of my own platoon's panzers - I was pretty pleased with the relatively low casualties this time around.






As for the Soviets, between us we had a decent bag. My other two Panzer IIIs fared less well, than I but had clobbered a brace of A/T guns. We were fortunate not to have run into any T-34s or KVs, or indeed 76.2mm field guns in the A/T role.
As for that T-60 light tank I'd engaged on the hill, I could now see that he had taken hits from all four of the rounds I had fired at him, but two had been glancing blows. The other T-60 I'd knocked out lay where I'd left him, next to a 45mm A/T gun, perhaps the one I had engaged but not been credited with.





In front of Nepokrytoe the Valentine burned, watched by a curious grenadier. If I had been he, I would not have stood quite so close to a burning tank, whose ammunition might cook off at any moment.



Reflecting on the whole experience, I would have preferred the SPWs to have paused a little longer at the start of the mission, to give me a bit more time to execute an independent move (although in this case I was a bit naughty and over-did this, completely swapping my assigned flank from right to left, not something a junior officer like a platoon leader does lightly).
There was no attempt to simulate your company commander during the battle. The guy who has planned the operation and given everybody their orders (the briefing) should also be present on the battlefield, with his Company HQ AFVs just behind the forward troops. You should see him and hear him from time to time on the radio, running the mission, as it unfolds. In the occasional mission I made for Panzer Elite, I tried to simulate this with event-triggered radio messages, like the commander telling all stations 'Phase 2 NOW, out' and 'Objective in the bag, well done everybody!' at the end, which is a bit more immersive than a big message flashing up on the screen. In this case our force looked to consist of a platoon of tanks and two platoons of panzergrenadiers, so we would likely have been commanded by the latter's Kompaniefuhrer, travelling in his own half-track with his 2ic (second in command, XO or Executive Officer in US army parlance) in another such vehicle, close by. People who play wargames with miniatures tend to be aware of the need for 'HQ units' to be part of any force but many tanksim mission designers seem not to.
Otherwise I'd found this operation immersive and fun. Just as important if you're interested in a militarily-realistic experience, there were some good opportunities to practice some platoon-level mission planning, tactical handling, movement/use of cover and the application of fire.


The pace and balance of the mission mostly suited my tastes well. I don't particularly like the Space Invaders approach to challenging missions, as in the typical M1TP2 defensive or meeting engagement, where you are remorselessly rushed by groups of enemies. The user-made Prokhorovka (Kursk) missions for Tiger and Panther are good examples of that genre in SF. But for everydaye fare - especially when playing from less thickly-skinned tanks like the Panzer III and IV - I want something a bit more survivable for me and my men. Something where I can concentrate on tactics rather than arcade-game style quick trigger work and hopefully, bring most or all my tanks through, as well as completing the mission objective. If and when you want it, greater challenge is always available in Steel Fury, by simply changing the 'Balance' setting before playing a mission. The scale of these campaign missions is also fine; most larger battles can be considered the sum of many smaller, company-level actions.
Modded, SF can provide at least three variants of the stock German 'Fredericus I' campaign - for Panzer IV, Panzer III and Sturmgeschutz III - plus comparable variations for the two stock Soviet campaigns (Group North and Group South). All of these are set in battlefields which are pretty realistic recreations of the actual contemporary local landscape including the actual villages, rivers and roads; they can look particularly good when combined with user-made seasonal terrains like the 'Scorching Summer' I used for this mission. I'm very glad I decided to give the stock Steel Fury campaigns a go and I'm looking forward to swapping sides and giving the panzers a run for their money, too, mindful of six brave men who fought to the last in that KV-2 at Rasyeinyia, all those years ago.



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PS - I'm still playing the stock campaign as opportunity permits and can confirm that the missions play out somewhat differently, each time you play them.


Third mission was an interesting one. In close company with a platoon of panzergrenadiers, my Panzer IIIs have first to destroy Soviet infantry and armoured units attempting to withdraw over a bridge into a village.




I should say that here as in the mission report, I'm using the 'Scorching Summer' terrain mod, which I particularly like and which gives the SF landscape a browner, less green appearance, as you can see in the shot below.




First time out, I attacked in close concert with the SPWs, clobbering the retreating Soviets and later, making it across the bridge with my three Panzers.




Unfortunately, while securing the village, we were counterattacked by a platoon of two or three T-34s which quickly slipped into the village from the far side and quickly got to close quarters. I immobilised one of them at close range from a flank but before I could disable him, he got me. Meanwhile more T-34s, on the far side of the river from whence I'd come, made short work of  supporting Panzer IVs and put our grenadiers to flight. One of my Panzers made it back across the bridge but ran into the marauding T-34s, too.




Replaying the mission, it was basically the same two-phase operation but we started in a different position. Once again, we shot up the retreating Soviets then, using the approach road's enbankment for cover, made it over the bridge and into the village, where I waited anxiously for the counterattack.




However, while the counterattack came in, it arrived in a different area and was destroyed, I think by the long guns of the Panzer IV platoon which was supporting our attack from the right flank.




So, second time around, we won the mission! And it replayed differently; the variability is definitely there. No Call of Duty-style predictability the second time around, in the Steel Fury stock campaigns, it seems!



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      ...to be continued!

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