Battling the Red Army in Steel Fury – Kharkov 1942
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)
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
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.
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.
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!
A new feature for the Steel Tank Add-on mod - British tank missions for North West Europe, 1944-45!
Not a mission report, strictly speaking, this is more a quick look at the mission that will feature in the first instalment of STA-Britpack. Which is what, exactly? Well it's inspired by Aldo's 'Brit44' mod for Panzer Elite, still a top tanksim, 17 years after release. Brit44 swapped for PE's stock US vehicles a good range of British AFVs, including Sherman, Cromwell and Churchill tanks. The missions were still the stock ones on the stock maps for the US Army's St Lo sector. But at last, we could try our hands against the 'Mark IVs', Panthers and Tigers with the thick-skinned Churchills, the speedy Cromwells or if in a Sherman, one with a big 17 Pounder gun, of the sort that seems to have brought panzer ace Michael Wittmann's career to a firey end.
Steel Fury of course started life as a strictly Eastern Front tanksim, and limited to the battle whose name it bore - Kharkov 1942. But the modders soon added vehicles, theatres and missions, to the extent that you can now fight in Africa and NW Europe too. Below is a British Churchill in Tunisia; and below that, some of Will 73's US Shermans in a mission by Lockie based on the forest ambush scene from the movie 'Fury'. [EDIT, Feb 2016 - a CombatAce mission report on this is now online, here]
Naturally, you will already know all of this, if you keep a weather eye upon the STA forums. But if you don't, well, now you know!
With the fairly recent addition of a Sherman Firefly - the British 17 Pdr variant - we now have a good selection of British Army AFVs suitable for missions set in and beyond the Normandy campaign - although the only Churchill is still the earlier MkIII. And did I mention already there's a Firefly...
...plus, for the 75mm gun variants, we now have an M4A1, distinguished by its rounded, cast hull...
...and an M4A2, a diesel-engined type, with the more common angular, welded hull, here with the tank commander rather rashly 'standing tall'...
...and there's a Cromwell, a 'cruiser' tank whose Steel Fury incarnation has an interesting and authentic camo net camouflage option...
Also, we have British versions of the US M3 half-track and M5 'Honey' or Stuart light tank, and some genuine Made-in-Britain kit like a '3-tonner' truck, 6 and 17 Pounder towed anti-tank guns, a 25 Pdr gun-howitzer, and the distinctive Universal Carrier aka Bren Carrier, a little multi-purpose AFV which was used throughout the war...
Sadly, there are few missions to take advantage of all this nice kit, and what there is, mainly involves reducing it to shell-shot hulks, burning or otherwise...
So, having finally cut my teeth with the Steel Fury Mission Editor, making some contributions to the upcoming 'Schuzle's Diary' SP gun campaign, I thought I might try to do something about that. Phase 1 of STA-Britpak is the first result - a single British Army Normandy mission, and a set of supporting file modifications which do useful things like add to the existing 3-tank platoons, a 4-tank option for British medium tanks, with either three Cromwells or Shermans, and a Firefly; and lower the height of the tank commander and loader figures, so that they are just heads out of the hatch when opened up, instead of standing tall like they are on a parade. Also, there will be a voice pack, which will, as the term suggests, add British-accented voices.
The single mission is a follow-on of sorts to the two Jagdpanther missions I made for the aforementioned German campaign; like them, it's using the existing Normandy map based on Villers Bocage (made by Deviator, with input from Lockie), but re-labelled to represent the area around Hill 226 and Saint-Martin-des-Besaces, where some tough fighting took place during the Operation Bluecoat offensive.
For this mission, set on 31 July 1944, the player is a Troop (platoon) Leader in the 23rd Hussars, a cavalry regiment which, being formed during World War 2, never went to war on horses! It's the day after the Jagdpanthers of Schwere Panzerjager Abteilung 654 famously mauled the Churchills of the Scots Guards on Hill 226. Now, the Germans are pulling back to more defensible positions nearer Vire, and your unit, 'A' Squadron, has been tasked with clearing a German rearguard out of St Martin. Though not an actual historical mission, it's based on the sort of battles that the Hussars fought about this time, during Bluecoat.
A feature of this mission - and the others that will hopefully join it, in subsequent phases - is that instead of the common Steel Fury style of 'briefing' delivered to the player alone, the mission will begin with orders, given as if at an 'O' Group by the player's unit commander, to the player and all the other participating sub-unit commanders. These orders, though simplified, will be in the authentic British WW2 format, which was functionally the same as the NATO format I learned in the 1970s.
Units will be deployed in recognisable formations and will have HQ units, present on the battlefield and making themselves 'heard' on the radio net (seen, actually, as scripted radio messages appear as subtitles). The mission scripting will also endeavour to have the units operate to the plan described in the orders, using something approximating to realistic company-level tactics.
The 23rd Hussars attack on St Martin begins with 'A' Squadron formed up in a field, facing the objective, which is on the other side of several hedgerows running roughly left to right across their front. They are deployed in the attack formation described in the orders - 'two up', meaning that two of the sqaudron's three tank troops are ahead, with the third - the player's - behind ('in depth'). Just ahead of the player, are the half-tracks of the attached motor rifle platoon from 3 Monmouths, the player's task being to assault with them, while the other two troops provide fire support from either flank. The two tanks of Squadron HQ are in the middle of the formation.
As the leading troops move off, the hedgerows ahead are struck by the supressive fire of the supporting artillery. A second barrage will fall on the more distant hedgerows immediately in front of St Martin, as the attackers close the range.
In line formation, 3 Troop's Shermans speed their way across an open field, trying to keep up with the rapidly-moving half-tracks.
Traversing right as we reach the village, I can see in the gunsight a burning house, and that somebody over on the right has helpfully managed to clobber one of the defending SP guns.
We have a scary minute or two, as we are engaged head on by another SP which has seemingly been waiting for us to come into sight around the corner of the main street. It gets scarier when a second SP appears, but having called my Troop into close order column formation, we manage to win the fire fight.
Reaching our phase 1 objective - the town square - a Sherman ahead and right fires across the street at an unseen target. My own tank's commander spots some motor transport tying to 'leg it', on the far side of town.
Spreading out again, we reach the Hotel de Ville, where the Nazi flag is still flying...but not for much longer!
This is the only mission that will be available with Phase 1 of STA-Britpak, but as more maps become available, more will be added - ideally and time permitting, in the form of mini-campaigns based on notable tankie memoirs, like John Foley's 'Mailed Fist' and Robert Boscawen's 'Armoured Guardsmen'.
The current release of Phase 1 is in test - at time of writing, it lacks the voice pack (using instead the existing US voices). And it's built in the upcoming STA 2.0 mod with the December update, this so far only being available to testers, so it may be released with STA 2.0, whose release date hasn't yet been announced. If Britpak works with the current 1.0 release of STA, we may release the former sooner. In the meantime, watch your arcs!