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Panzerangriff, Ostfront!

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Battling the Red Army in Steel Fury – Kharkov 1942


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This is another instalment in the stock German campaign from Graviteam’s excellent WW2 tanksim. Well, not quite stock. First, I’m playing with ‘mods on’; and while the STA mod I use doesn’t affect the vanilla campaign, I’m also using two other mods which do – the STA variant of ‘early spring weather’ which improves the landscapes, and the ‘grey color’ mod which - as its name suggests - reverts German vehicle schemes from the varied mid-war colours of the STA mod, to the ‘Panzer Grau’ used from the start of the war up to the period of the stock game – early summer 1942. 

 

Panzer III J, STA European camouflage scheme (header pic above is in 'Grey color' mod)

 

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And yes, I know some experts tell us panzers were brown and grey (low contrast supposedly hiding the pattern, on most B&W photos) till the summer of 1940. But I’m with those who believe plain grey was the norm before officially being so ordered during the 1940 Battle of France. Anyway, despite some exceptions like Afrika Korps vehicles being diverted to the Ostfront for the German summer 1942 offensive, it seems grey is best for the Summer 1942 Battle of Kharkov that the sim is built around.

The second non-stock aspect of this campaign is that I’m using the variant that’s been modded to use the Panzer III, rather than the Panzer IV. At this time, the ‘Mark 3’ (as the British called it) was still the standard German medium tank, with the later ‘Mark 4’ only beginning to lose its original ‘support tank’ role as more of them appeared with a long 75mm gun in place of the original low velocity, short-barrelled original.

 

Panzer VI F2, with longer-barrelled, 43-calibre 75mm KwK 40

 

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Apart from that, I believe the campaign is the same as the stock ‘Fredericus 1’ Wehrmacht campaign – same maps, same objectives, just different tanks in the player’s platoon.

As usual in Steel Fury, you start with the mission map, but can’t zoom out far enough to see the whole battlefield and must scroll about a bit, to see what’s what. Also as usual, the narrative briefing is structured in a format which may be authentic (for the Soviet side?) but is a bit discursive for someone used to the (to my mind) better-presented NATO format for orders (the British WW2 system was functionally identical). As for the content, you need to look at the map to find out what sort of force you’re operating with, because the briefing doesn’t go much below Regimental level. That’s fine as background but doesn’t tell you much at platoon or company level, which is what you need most, when playing as a platoon commander.

At any rate, I can see that our objective is to attack and clear a series of enemy defensive positions, these being strung out in a rough line, over to my right. Then, we must stave off any Soviet counterattack. We have some pre-programmed artillery support – a mere platoon commander, I have no say in this – and the Luftwaffe is to drop supplies to some friendly forces besieged in the village of Ternovaya, nearby (tho not near enough to see on the map, although I'm told to advance in its general direction after fending off the counter-attack).

 

You can see the situation a bit more clearly below, with the briefing text suppressed. We are mounting concentric attacks (the blue arrows) on the enemy defensive positions (red markings, specifically the 'dead hedgehog' graphics). My 'blue arrow' is the one coming in from the left.

 

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Historically, this is all part of a series of vicious battles near Kharkov in the Ukraine where a Red Army offensive knocked the Germans back on their heels, until the latter re-instated their own offensive plans and threw back the Soviets after much hard fighting.

Looking at the map to get a better picture of our operation, I could see that my three-tank platoon - though said to be on the right – is on the left of a company-sized mixed (tank-infantry) force. With me are some panzergrenadiers, in SPW armoured half-tracks. Over to our right – rather far away, for mutual support – is another platoon of tanks – Panzer IVs as I will later discoverare and beyond them, some more SPWs. There is no ‘headquarters unit’, which should have been there to represent the company commander and his immediate entourage, who would be on the ground and in command of a group of several platoons like ours. Though long included in the ‘Army lists’ used by wargamers and having an important role in Wargame: European Escalation and the like, many tanksims omit important HQ units, in terms of their physical presence on the battlefield and not really simulating their exercise of command and control during a mission (mission designers can and should try to represent the latter with mission triggers which prompt radio messages like fresh orders, exhortations or excoriations).

 

To help formulate my platoon plan, I spent a bit of time working out the lie of the land. SF’s maps are quite good but this can be tricky, with few spot heights, a limited zoom-out and no ability (added to Steel Armor Blaze of War in a recent update, but absent from SF) to view the ground in 3 dimensions, before you actually start the mission. I nevertheless noted that the enemy defensive positions seemed to be in a line, with little depth. This suggested we should ‘roll them up’, from left to right, pretty well straight from where we were starting. As to how, my platoon was deployed with an SPW platoon. I well knew how vulnerable the latter usually proved in SF attacks, having a tendency to advance fearlessly when discretion might be the better part of valour. So I decided to keep it simple and work closely with our grenadiers. In the absence of information or instructions on routes and formations in the briefing, I expected that the SPWs would drive directly towards the nearest enemy. So that’s what I would do, trying to keep ahead of them. The ground was fairly open, and in such country, it seemed best for the tanks to lead.

I kicked off the mission and in the map view - whose icons are the main command and control tool, as there are few hotkeys usable from the 3d world – I ordered my tanks into line formation, close order and to ‘Do as I do’. As usual I switched to the gunner’s position, from where (as in most tanksims, presumably for playability’s sake) you can also do some tank commander stuff like select ammo types and give commands to the driver. Ordering an HE round into the breech, I oriented myself in the external view and off we went, uphill but directly towards the enemy’s right flank positions. Looking around, I could see the SPWs deploying and then moving off in the same direction, just behind and to my right.

 

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 As usual in SF, our light armour seemed to be in a big hurry and I had to go flat out, to stay ahead of them. This left my two other tanks lagging behind on either side. And there was no time for me to scan ahead from the halt, for possible enemy positions. I’ve come to like and enjoy SF’s stock campaigns, but I do wish the attacking missions were scripted to allow a more tactical advance, with regular halts to observe ahead and time to apply a bit of ‘bounding overwatch’. If you try that in SF, the party could be over by the time you get there. And the lighter armour will likely have rushed ahead and been badly knocked about. With SF attacks,  it’s often a bit of a mad charge. This mission was turning out to be no exception: get stuck in, worry about the finer points when it hits the fan. Which it did, soon enough!

 

...to be continued!

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Charge of the Light Panzer Brigade...

 

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My platoon of Panzer IIIs raced our grenadiers in their SPWs, up the hill and out of the depression where we'd formed up. We were all going full tilt and our speed began to pick up, as the slope eased off and we emerged onto an area of more level ground which stretched away ahead of us. Up there somewhere, I knew, lay the enemy, dug in and ready for us...although our assault group, coming in on the right flank of a line of enemy positions which lay along our axis of advance, would hopefully catch them at a disadvantage. Looking ahead from the tank commander's cupola on the move, I could see nothing of the enemy as yet, even though the fairly level ground wasn't bouncing us around too badly.

 

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To my right was the grenadier's platoon commander, recognisable from his SdKfz 251/10 variant, with 37mm A/T gun mounted atop the driver's cab. He must have been on the hunt for a medal, because he seemed determined to be first into action. Equally determined that he should not be, I urged my driver on. I was not going to see our grenadiers' thinly-armoured Hanomags getting into serious trouble, if I could possibly help it.

 

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We came to a ploughed field and sped across it, our tracked vehicles trailing brown plumes of dirt. Somewhere up ahead, the sounds of firing began. At least one of the other two prongs of our three-pronged attack were obviously seeing some action; likely the tank platoon in the centre, which had the unenviable task of making a more or less frontal assault. Hopefully they would at least succeed in distracting the enemy from the forces which were about to fall upon their flanks...including, not least, our own good selves.

 

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Coming to the straggling line of trees at the far side of the ploughed field, I could still not make out the enemy. But reasuringly, I could see the bursts of friendly artillery fire falling on the foeman, a few hundred metres to our direct front. Not long now! And so far, things seemed to going pretty well according to plan. Without serious mishap, at any rate, and that would do, for now.

 

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At this point, I switched back to the gunner's position and let my AI tank commander take over that role. Amongst other things, he is quite good at deciding when to duck. If you stay in the 'TC unbuttoned' view too long - which it is tempting to do, for the better view - it's very easy to get zapped. And if your tank commander is dead or badly wounded, it's 'game over', there and then.

 

My AI boss quickly got to work, calling out some infantry targets. But rather than halt to engage them, I closed the range, as they seemed no big threat to armoured vehicles, until we were much closer. In fact we ended up practically on top of the first enemy positions, before I finally halted and started shooting. This worked out tolerably well, for at the same time the SPWs ground to a halt and the grenadiers began to debus, before making a final assault on foot. Classic tank-infantry work, really, and nice to behold. The SF AI displays some rather prominent rough edges at times, but it can often be quite convincing.

 

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So far, so good. I did what I could to help, by shooting up sundry surviving Soviet troops, lurking in and around nearby trenches, in ones and twos. Meanwhile, our brave grenadiers fought through the enemy positions, closely supported by their SPWs and making pretty good use of fire and movement to overcome and clear the remaining enemy opposition.

 

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Well, this had been a bit of a mad charge, but the Charge of the Light Brigade, it wasn't. Far from running into a re-entrant ringed by enemy gunners, we had crashed into the right shoulder of their position, thoroughly dislocating it. But the rest of the enemy line, up ahead, remained to be rolled up. Our other attacking platoons were certainly piling into the enemy up there somewhere and we needed to maintain our own momentum. This was no time to rest on our proverbial laurels.

 

...to be continued!

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Die Bolshevisten kommen!

'The Bolshevists are coming!' - a piece of background chatter regularly heard in Steel Fury

 

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At this point - up to which, our attack had been going tolerably well - things started to go rather badly awry. I was scanning about from the gunsight view, and had rather lost situational awareness. Thus it came as quite a shock, to see one of my Panzer IIIs had been knocked out, close by. As it happened, he'd been clobbered by a 37mm AA gun in a field position, further down the enemy line of trenches. I had little time to dwell on this, or even have a good look around to assess the situation. Suddenly, my tank commander was calling in a tank target. I swung my gun in the direction indicated.

 

To digress, SF doesn't make this easy. Most tank sims sensibly use the clock code to indicate targets, as indeed did the German Army in WW2. Panzer Elite and T-34 -v- Tiger follow this pattern, for example. In my day, British infantrymen were trained to uee the clock code, to indicate a target to a tank, from the outside. The key point is, these methods use the direction the main gun is pointing, as twelve o'clock.

 

Steel Fury's AI tank commanders use the clock code to indicate targets, and even if like me, your German is very limited, it's quite easy to pick it up, for an Anglophone. So what's the problem, then? Well, the problem is that SF uses compass north as twelve o'clock. This is plain daft. If the barrel were used, and you're playing as gunner, responding as you would to a target indication on the intercom from your TC, it's quite instinctive, to know whether you need to traverse right or left, and roughly by how much - even if you have the visual aids turned off.

 

But using north as the datum, you have to turn on the on-screen 'HUD' display, if it's not already active; refer to the on-screen compass and determine where north is in relation to the direction your barrel and sight are pointing; then adjust accordingly. This is neither fast nor instinctive. It's possibly needed for the Soviet system, where the gunner's sight is often a rotating periscope (which SF replicates) which was not permanently fixed to the alignment of the gun. The only really workable option is to enable the on-screen target markers. These place a little orange diamond over your target if it's in your field of view; if it's not, you instead see little orange arrowheads at the left or right edge of the screen. It's quite neat and not too conspicuous, but really, it's a poor substitute for just using the barrel as twelve o'clock. Tellingly, Graviteam replaced this system in their next tank sim, SABOW - it still doesn't use the clock code the usual way but it's much more instinctive once you have it figured out. And it's supported by a neater 'turret position indicator' graphic.

 

Despite having the orange target markers disabled - I'm a glutton for punishment, evidently - I managed to pick up a tank target in my gunsight. To my surprise, it was a Valentine, supplied by the British under lend-lease and apaprently not unpopular with the Soviets. He was a crossing target, closing but also moving right to left. Range was short but it didn't help that as well as crossing, he was partly hull-down. It also doesn't help that German AI TCs in SF seem consistently to over-estimate range. So if you set your sight as indicated - and you have to do this in the zoomed out view, as the range scale is mostly hidden, zoomed in, as you can see below - you may find your round zipping over your target.

 

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It also didn't help that I had an HE round 'up the spout'. Realistically, SF won't unload this if you order a switch to Armour-Piercing - the new round will be loaded next. When you're being rushed by an enemy tank, this can't happen  fast enough. Grenadiers milling about in my line of sight was another issue. Nevertheless, I put several AP rounds into the Valentine, some after it had halted.  He might only have a relatively poor 2-Pounder (40mm) gun but his low silhouette and thick, infantry tank armour made him a hard target to kill. And at close range, I was taking no chances. I had no intendion of sharing the firey fate of my comrades, there for all to see.

 

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Things got a bit hazy after that. I started to change position but more Valentines appeared. All I had time to do was orient my tank to face them and shoot, shoot and shoot again. Shamefully, any thought of leading my diminished platoon went completely out of my head. Leaving my surviving platoon-mate to his own devices - which in SF, often seems to result in them charging to death or glory, unless you click sundry icons in map view, to rein them in - I fought for my own virtual life.

 

Somehow the Valentines were halted and fell silent. No sooner had the last of them been dealt with, than we faced another counterattack, this time by T-60 light tanks. Any smug sense of superiority was stilled by the discovery that I had used up all my AP rounds. Reluctant to use my small store of tungsten-cored 'special AP' rounds on light armour, I started hitting them with HE, to which the little tanks seemed quite resistant. So I let them have some of my precious tungsten rounds, even thought these were likely to overpenetrate. They did the trick, but only after one of the little devils, coming up on my right while I was otherwise engaged, had thoroughly peppered the side of my panzer with his 20mm cannon. Or maybe they were hits from a Soviet A/T rifle - note they seem to have been aiming for my vision slits, a common tactic for such weapons.

 

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By this time, apart from some half-tracks still in action, I was on my own. At some point duing this vicious little firefight, my second platoon mate had gone down. Drat! I consider it a priority to bring my men through the battle, unlike some players who, with some justification, consider their often feckless AI comrades a hopeless case, mere cannon fodder. This time, I'd failed in the objective of preserving their AI skins, regardless of the overall mission's result.

 

Moving on again, I passed a solitary T-34 which had come from somewhere. I think one of the other panzer platoon must have got him.

 

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The only targets left now seemed to be scttered Soviet infantrymen. These we duly engaged, mopping up alongside the remaining grenadiers and SPWs. The enemy casualties included one of the emplaced 37mm AA guns which I later discovered had got one of my own panzers.

 

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At about this point I got the 'Mission completed' message. Fortunately for me this time, and sensibly, Graviteam's Steel Fury is not one of those sims which unrealistically determines mission success or failure purely according to the player's actions. My platoon and I had played our part to be sure, but at heavy cost and in the end, it was a team effort for the force involved - as it should be.

 

Here are two of the knocked-out Valentines, together with one of the T-60s, which came to grief right next to them. Most if not all of this trio were credited to me.

 

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As usual our light armour had suffered pretty heavily, though most of the damaged SPWs looked recoverable, not a total loss. And some had survived unscathed, for which I could claim some of the credit, having decided to lead them into action, at some cost to my own platoon.

 

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This had been a slightly frustrating mission, in that I'd lost control and been rather overwhelmed; and in that the climax had come early, with the subsequent success feeling particularly anticlaimactic. However, it had certainly not been routine, with the fast pace of the developing counterattack providing a decent adrenaline rush. And one of the good things about SF missions is that they can play out somewhat differently each time, plus you can adjust the force balance so you may meet more or less numerous or powerful enemies.

 

I'd originally had limited interest in the stock Steel Fury campaigns and was reluctant to go up against possible T-34s and KV-1s in a Panzer III or early Panzer IV. But playing them has taught me to appreciate them, both the missions and the mid-war panzers. For all my quibbles over soft spots in the AI, the non-intuitive target indication system and the lack of simulated radio traffic between vehicles on the same radio net, Steel Fury - modded - is in my books still a top-notch tank simulator and my own current favourite, of the breed. In particular, it is a feast for ears and eyes, bringing to life the familiar pictures of tanks sweeping over the sun-kissed steppes at the height of the Blitzkrieg, sweeping all before them until the dream finally crumbled, at that city on the Volga which bore the name of the feared Soviet leader. But that's another story!

 

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