Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Suomussalmi - the Battle.

Dawn 11 December 1939.  Finnattacks go in. 
View of Suomussalmi, looking south
As the 163rd (Moscow) Division settled in and around Suomussalmi town for the miserably frozen night of 10-11 December, 1939, they were already aware that the whole operation had run into trouble.  Finnish columns were operating along the north road whence the Russians had come; who knew what lay on the eastern, more direct road to the Soviet frontier.

Even so, they were perhaps surprised by the concentric dawn attacks that at once severed the roads north and east.  One-six-three Rifle Division was cut off, alone, frozen, and under heavy assault.
Situation Map: 11 December 1939

Soviet 759th Rgt under heavy assault.
To begin with, the Finns enjoyed considerable success, knocking holes in the III Battalions of the rifle regiments, and reducing the 163 Recce Unit to a line of smoking vehicles.  Yet the four SP loss inflicted upon the Russians cost the Finns nine.  At this rate it was already problematic whether the attackers had the strength completely to wipe out this Russian Division before any relief arrived.

Soviet 81st Rgt Under attack.  PPP6 has been
forced out of the fight.
More worrying for the attackers was that the middle of the day passed without any further success. The Finns rolled 18 dice for attack, seeking 6s to hit, and scored precisely... squat.  Nothing. Not one hit. The three that could reasonably have been expected, even just two, might have constituted considerable progress. Meanwhile, the Russian defence continued  to erode the Finns' attacking resources.  The PPP6 column drew back up the north road in an exhausted state, as did II/ 27 battalion back across the frozen Haukipera lake southeast of Suomussalmi.
Repulse of II/27 (Finn) Battalion
As the 11 December evening drew in, the Finns managed some further success, but there was no doubt that it had been a day at least as hard for them as it had the Soviets. True, III/ 759 had been broken and destroyed, as had 163rd Recce - 4 SP (strength points) irrecoverably lost. But the cost! The effort had cost 27th Regiment 14 out of 18 SP, and Pravola's column had also been reduced to one-third of its strength.
27th (Finn) Rgt has taken very heavy casualties...
On the other side of the town, the scratch 'militia' columns had as discouraging a measure of success.  They drove III/ 81st Battalion onto the Kiantajarvi lake, but the Soviet battalion was not completely destroyed, and even then its 2SP loss had taken a 5SP toll of the Finns.

... as have the militia columns.
This might have been enough to end the game - the action - right there, but there remained the matter of gathering in stragglers overnight. The Soviets were less fortunate in this regard, as two of their units were a total loss, but III/ 81 were able to recruit some of their lost strength, and were even able to reoccupy the ground lost during the day.  For their part, the Finns were able to regather 11 of the 21SPs lost during the day. The battle could resume.
27th Infantry regathers its strength...
On the 12th, the Pravola column moved over to the small ridge between the Haukipera and the small Kuomosjarvi lakes as a flank guard watching the east road. A partially restored 27th Regiment resumed its attacks along the east road, against II/ 759th Battalion and the Divisional gun line. 
... and go in once more.
The scratch columns also resumed their attacks, enfeebled though they were. Once more III/ 81 was driven onto the lake and destroyed as the PPP6 column followed up.
The militias also resume their assault.
One battalion of 81st Rgt destroyed -
but at a high cost
Right from the beginning of the action, Lt Col Fagernas had led his battalion against II/81 Battalion with scant success, but by the middle of 12 December had reduced the Russians to half strength.  The Finnish columns were themselves down to 60% strength overall.  Still, between them surely II/81 could be brushed aside to permit an attack on the town itself?

General view of the action around
Suomussalmi - looking west.along the
Raate road.
During the early daylight hours of 12 December, 27th regiment enjoyed a rare moment of good fortune. For negligible loss (0SP), III Battalion attacking up the road, and II Bn across the lake smashed II/759th, drove the remnants out of the settlement there, and onto the Kiantasjarvi ice. There the II/759th met its end.  Few stragglers ever saw their homeland again.
The Finns make progress east of the town.
After the considerable success of the morning, once more, the Finns found further progress difficult to achieve.  The exiguous survivors of II/81 Rifle Regiment simply refused to yield ground or to die.  At the end of the day the militia columns had reached almost the end of their tether - just 40% of their strength remaining as night drew in. 

Attempting to follow up their early morning success, 27th Regiment found the Soviet artillery well served and defended with determination. All three battalions took considerable losses even just reducing the batteries. There was no time to overrun the silent guns. The Soviet artillery remained in being overnight, and some batteries were back in action on the 13th.

The Finns reach the Soviet gun line.
That misfortune committed the battered 27th regiment to resume its enfeebled attacks the following day. This time the combined attacks of II and III Battalions sufficed to overrun the Soviet gun line, and I Battalion even contrived to assault Suomussalmi itself and inflict losses upon I/759 Battalion.
The view looking north

General Zelentsov find himself in the front line.  The dissolution
of 183 looks imminent, but the Finns are much weakened.
Greatly daring, the remains of the militia columns north and west of the town also resumed their attacks, but II/81 Battalion was not to be shifted. Exhausted as they now were, the order went out: henceforth, stand on the defensive. At least the Russians were not to be permitted to break out along the north road.
The militias have just about reached the end of their tether.
By this time the 44th Division was approaching up the east road, though still some distance off.  About the middle of the day the lead elements had made contact with Captain Pravola's road block. 

[A couple of remarks are due here.  

First off, historically, the road block of two companies under a Captain Makinen had been drawn from 27th Regiment.  Captain Pravola's column had in fact crossed the Kiantasjarvi lake ice to join the other column attacking the west of the Suomussalmi

The other is the lack of photos of the approaching column of the 44th.  In fact I had taken several, and the 'day' was ending, before I found I had placed them crossing the bridge, that is to say, on the wrong road!  At the end of the 'day' I placed them on the right road and carried on as if nothing had happened  It made no difference to the day's action, but would during the subsequent days.]

Those three Finnish columns had begun with
10SPs at dawn three days back.
Nothing more to be expected from the militias and border troop, the last attacks had perforce to be mounted by 27th Regiment. At the end of the day, I/27 Battalion broke into the town, dispersing the last battalion of 759th Regiment in the process. General Zelentzov suddenly found himself in the front line. 

27th Infantry started with 17 SP
Sitting behind their road block on their little ridge, Capt. Pravola's little command probably felt much as Major-General D.H. Hill did, in an an analogous position on South Mountain, watching the entire Union Army of the Potomac coming straight for him.  They were not going round - not as road bound as they were. As the day ended Pravola was still barely hanging on against the lead two battalions of the 25th Rifle Regiment, 44th Division. Poised for the breakthrough were the rest of the 25th, and the 312th Independent Tank Battalion. Off into the murky eastern distance stretched a long column of Soviet - Ukraine - infantry.
Evening, 13 December.  Soviet 44th Division encounter
the Pravoli road block.  There is no going round it.
Recognising that Pravola was unlikely to hold out indefinitely, Col Makiniemi ordered his III/27 Battalion to form a line north of the small Kuomasjarvi lake beside Pravola's position, and II Battalion to for a backstop on the road, where he joined them with his own Regimental HQ.  I Battalion was left alone  to contain what was left of 163 Division within the burned out precincts of Suomussalmi.  Unable to break out, 163 Division would have to wait for the 44th to break in.
Another historical aside seems to be called for here. It appears that this pretty much followed, though in abbreviated form, the actual events. Unable to destroy 163rd Division, the Finns were reduced to blockading the Russians whilst the main action devolved upon 64th Regiment, and events along the Raate road.
A final assault takes out General Zelentsov's Div HQ

As it transpired, Pravola's little command proved as resilient in defence as the Russian 81st Regiment had shown. II/25th Battalion exhausted itself in fruitless attacks, and I/25th was in little better case.

Pravoli's gallant band repulses the first Soviet attacks.
All the while, the column waited, stalled, upon the road. Snowladen and sodden, the ground would not permit the ski-less Soviet troops stray from the road (see previous posting for the special rules about this), so it was a case of hurry up and wait.
The 44th Div column along the Suomussalmi-Raate road.

At daybreak of the 14th, the attacks resumed. Unable to regain the road, II/25th dissolved and I/25th fell back to reform. III Battalion took up the struggle with tank support The latter at last effecting the breakthrough,  the riflemen were able to follow up and carry the ridge.  Pravola's column was no more.

Collapse of Pravoli's defence.
It was too late now for 44th Division. Since arriving in the area, it had taken more than two days to force the passage between the lakes in the early daylight hours of 15th December.
Arrival of 64th Infantry.
By this time the HQ 9th Infantry Division had taken over conduct of the battle.  The 64th Infantry Regiment had arrived, together with badly needed and much missed artillery.  As the Soviet infantry swept over Pravola's ridge line, the Finns were already close by.
I/64th Infantry vs 312 Tank Battalion 3-nil.

In the middle of the day, the Finnish attacks went in. Coming up the main South-east road, I and II Battalions attacked the heads of the road column before they could follow up the breakthough. [For the first time you will observe the 'priority chits laid down.  Until now, the 163 passive defence, followed by 27th Infantry's abandoning its attacking role, there was no real need for them.  But now both sides are on the move, so prioritising was critical.]

As I Battalion attacked the light tanks, II Battalion join in against I/25 Battalion, already badly mauled in earlier fighting. Meanwhile, III/64th had its objective the column as it passed through the Raate village.  

64th infantry severs the road, and cuts off the head of
the Soviet road column.
Supported as they were by artillery, and the Soviets lacking time for any but the hastiest of devefences ('M' must switch to 'S' before it may dig in for 'D' mode.) The Finns had good reason to be confident of success in their attacks near the lakes.  I/25th were easily overrun. Though 312 Tank Battalion fell back to the road, that unit, too, succumbed to a determined Finnish follow-up.  

Before night fell, I/64th Battalion had severed the road, leaving III/ 25th and I/ 146th Battalions cut off as they were attacking the II/27th Finnish Battalion to the west.  In close attendance, II/64th could help to sustain the blockade.

Meanwhile, the I/64 Battalion attacks, alone and unsupported, met with no substantial success. Striking the rear battalion (III) of 305 Rifle Regiment, I/64 lost 40% of its strength making not the slightest impression.
In Suomussalmi itself, I/27th rather exceeded its orders attacking General Zelentsov's headquarters and supply column (That is to say, I took a chance). The elimination of the 163 Divisional command ensured that 81st Rifle regiment would be going nowhere for the duration.
As the 44th prepared, at daybreak of the 17th, to try and force the passage west, two battalions of the 305th Rifle regiment were detailed to drive off the single Finn battalion menacing Raate. For their part, the Finns went over to a temporary defensive ('S' stance), hoping, if the enemy sufficiently weakened himself, they could resume the attack to create a third road block.
The Soviet attacks were always going to be problematic, with low SPs and no artillery support - the guns still far down the road to the rear (and hence, not yet on the table).
The lead battalion of 146th Rifle Regiment continued trying to batter its way westward.  Here I think the Soviet decision making (i.e. mine) fell a little short.  At least III/25 ought to have regained the road in the behind the 64th Regiment road block, but better yet would have been for the I/146th to lend its weight to the clearance attempt, and bring what was left of III/25 onto the road to confront 27th Regiment.  The chances of success weren't great, but would have been much improved by such a move.
That being as it may, a whole multi-decker sandwich now existed along the Raate-Suomussalmi road, with the Soviets struggling to break through, to the rescue the remnants of 163 Division.
Situation map 17 December. 1939.  

The reason why I/146 Battalion ought to have returned is shown in the picture to the right. Though Soviet losses averaged 50%, I/64 had been knocked about by the attacks and reduced to 60%. Further losses might have made a breakthrough a realistic proposition, bearing in mind that II/64 was close by to take up the cudgels.
As it was, the Soviet strength was ebbing faster than had the Finns' around Suomussalmi. A strong counterattack by II and III/305 Battalions failed by nightfall 17 December to force III/64th back from the Raate road; the remainder of 64th Infantry were not getting out of the Soviets' way any time soon, and two surviving lead battalions of 44th Division were themselves cut off. The besieged remains of 81st Division were as far from rescue as ever.

At this point, I called it. Both sides were pretty much exhausted. On the Finnish side, not much remained of 27th Infantry or the 'militia' and border police columns that had attacked Suomussalmi from the West. Column Pravola had been destroyed. Even 64th Regiment had over the last two days taken serious losses - a good 40% from its infantry strength. 

The Soviets were in even worse case: barely half 81st Regiment survived of the whole 163rd Division; of the 44th Divisional troops that had been able to enter the action, over 50% (16/30SP) had been lost. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, overall Soviet losses in this action did not much exceed the Finns' - 29SP to 27.  The forces engaged had been equal overall, as well.

Having said that, the result still had to be a Finnish victory, if perhaps less overwhelming than it was historically. The 44th Division support elements and ambulances were unlikely ever to get onto the table (though it was not impossible), and a breakthrough was certainly out of court. The Soviets were never going to get more than a draw out of the action: the total loss of 163rd Division, and a very badly battered 44th. More of the 44th would probably have survived than did historically, though it was equally possible that the Finns should manage to recreate the string of 'Motti' that proved so fatal to thousands of Ukraine soldiers.

Still not quite perfect - I actually made a couple of annoying errors in the play - I thought this action went extremely well. It was certainly nowhere near as one-sided as might have been indicated by all the handicaps I placed upon the unlucky Red Army. One unlooked for outcome from thinking about it: a 'stacking' rule that might resolve some of the outstanding issues I have had with my own version(s) of the Megablitz/Hexblitz/NQM game systems.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Suomussalmi - the Project.

Early action on the road north out of Suomussalmi.
You have to imagine the snow, frozen lakes.
burned village and the Finns in winter clothing...
Tell you what: if you ever want a project to blow up in your face... !  This started out as pretty much the Tim Gow 'Motti' scenario, from his Megablitz book, adapted to my hex-grid game board and Bob Cordery's Hexblitz rule set.  Of course I just had, didn't I, to hoik out my copy of Robert Edwards's White Death book.  Then redo the map... follow the action ... rethink the orders of battle (OOB)... create a whole new scenario...

In this posting, I'll describe the scenario as played out on my table, the orders of battle, special rules, and list some to the resources I had occasion to examine.  May I add my thanks to Neil Patterson, who pointed me towards some very useful sources for the OOBs.  One clarification did come too late to affect the game: the presence of III/662 Battalion.  For the life of me I couldn't work out whether the battalion General Zelentsov had retained in reserve had found its way to Suomussalmi or not.  

I discovered that some corrections needed to be made to Tim Gow's 'setting the scene', so let's begin with a brief narrative.  

Frustrated in its attempts to negotiate a movement of the Finnish border much farther off than it was from Leningrad (St Petersburg that was and will be)  - indeed to enclose the whole of Lake Ladoga within its borders, the Soviet Union (that is to say, Josef Stalin) sought recourse to the force of arms.  Very late in the year (1939) though it was, Stalin mobilised an enormous force of infantry, artillery and tanks to invade and impose by force majeure the border adjustment he demanded.

Part of the overall plan was to cut the more populous part of Finland off from possible aid via Sweden, with a thrust across the 'waist' of the country to the port and rail head at Oulu, a warm-weather sea port at the head of the Gulf of Bothnia.  This task was entrusted to Ninth Army, of which 163rd (Moscow) and 44th (Kiev) Divisions formed a part.  Marching westwards the commander of 163 Rifle Division, General Zelentsov, divided his force, diverting two regiments (81st and 759th)  to seize the small town of Suomussalmi.  Thinly defended though the place was, the garrison put up a spirited resistance, and was not to be evicted until they had burned most of it down.  By this time 163 Division was already running into trouble and out of supplies.
Rough situation map as at 11 December, 1939.
Dawn. 11th December, II and III Bns, 27th Infantry
about to attack the road east out of Suomussalmi.

"The case of Suomi-Salmi [sic] is worsening," ran the wire to the 44th Division, then still on the Soviet side of the border, south-east of Suomussalmi, "I order all measures taken and urgently without delay to throw all forces of 44th S.D. [Rifle Division] in order not to give the enemy [time] to surround and capture two regiments of 163 Infantry Division. Throw all aviation to help 163 Division ..."
"Commander in Chief: K. Voroshilov,
"Member of Main Council: J. Stalin
"Chief of General Staff: B Shaposhnikov" (Istpravda, 30 Nov 2010 - see below)

Victory conditions.

I extended the game length from 4 (Tim Gow) to 7 days - 11 -17 December, to accommodate the delay between the arrival and first attacks of 27th (Finn) Regiment, and the arrival near Raate, of the 44th (Soviet) Division.  At that the whole action, which lasted about 6 weeks or so, has been compacted into as many days.  Each day comprised 3 game turns, with night being used to recuperate at least some of the loss in strength.

If both Soviet Divisions could must at least half their Strength point on table at nightfall of 17th December, the Soviets won; if only one, it was drawn.  Otherwise it was a Finnish victory.

The beleaguered 163rd Rifle Division under heavy attack

Orders of Battle:

Soviets Forces, elements of IX Army.

163rd (Moscow) Division (Rating Conscript)

- Division HQ (General Zelentsov)  Car SP=1
- 81st Rifle Regiment, 
     3 Battalions, each 4 stands, SP=2* [I discover this was a better trained outfit than the rest of the Division, having been swapped from the 54th Rifle Division.  So maybe it ought to be rated SP=3]
- 759th Rifle regiment,
     3 battalions, each 4 stands, SP=2
- 163rd Recon Battalion, 1xBA6 armoured car, R, SP=2
- 86th Light Artillery Regiment, 
     1x76mm gun plus crew SP=2
     1 x limber (I used a truck - 148th Truck Bn) 1 LOG
     1 spotter (single figure with binoculars, 'r'
- Elements, 14th Transport Battalion
     1 x pack horse stand, 1 LOG.

Note: 1. My researches finally (too late) disclosed that III/662 Battalion eventually fetched up in the area.  In two minds about where this unit might be located, I omitted it.  Perhaps it ought to be retained.  If so it goes on the Y-road junction north of Suomussalmi.

         2. Several factors downgrade the Soviet infantry battalions, even as conscripts: poor equipment, poor leadership, inadequate equipment and protection from the climate (let alone the actual weather!).

Early morning attacks by small 'militia' columns on the road
north out of Suomussalmi.

44th (Kiev) Division (Rating Regular)

- Division HQ (General Vinogradov) Car SP=1
- 25th Rifle Rgt
     3 Battalions, each 4 stands, SP=3 [See Note 2 above]
- 146th Rifle Rgt
     3 Battalions, each 4 stands, SP=3
- 305th Rifle Rgt
     3 Battalions, each 4 stands, SP=3
- 312th (Independent) Tank Battalion
     1 x T26, SP=3 [Although this is a light tank only, in view of the Finns' unfamiliarity with such equipment, I have beefed the SP value up to 3 on 'scary kit' grounds.]
- 122nd Light Artillery 
     1 x 76mm gun SP=2
     1 x limber or tow 2 LOG
     1 x spotter (r)
- 179th Howitzer Artillery
     1 x 122mm Howitzer SP=2
     1 x tow 2 LOG
     1 x spotter 2 LOG
- 4th Recon Battalion: 
     1 x T38 tankette OR 1 x BA Armoured car SP=2. R
- 56th Anti-Tank Battalion:
     1 x 45mm AT gun SP=1
     1 x tow (tractor or truck) 
- 42nd Motor Battalion:
     1 x lorry 3 LOG
     2 x additional supply columns to re-victual 163 Division, each 2 LOG.

Note 3This Division arrives marching along the road through Raate, daybreak 13th December (Day 3)  Road speed on foot, 3 hexes.

Note 4As it happened, only the infantry and tanks got onto the table.  The reasons for this will emerge from the narrative.

Note 5. The 44th Division was considered something of an elite formation, at least by Soviet high command.  It seems that no one in this formation felt very elite in 1939.

Midday, 11 December.  Finnish attacks have successfully
wrecked the Soviet recon group.  But the Finns themselves
have taken substantial losses.

Finnish Forces:

Under command 27th Infantry until the arrival of 64th Infantry, when the whole comes under the command of HQ, 9th Infantry Division.

 - 27 Infantry Rgt (Veteran)
     HQ: single figure SP=2
     Supply Column, pack horse stand, 2 LOG
     3 Battalions each 3 stands, SP = 5 [ I made them 3 stands, thinking them deficient in battalion-level support weapons.  Indications subsequently suggest this to have been a mistaken view.  The 3 stands were beefed up to 5 SP for level of training, familiarity with the local battlefield environment (snow, forest, extreme cold), able leadership (which should account for something).  

- Militia, police and local forces (Trained/ Regular)
    Column Pagernas: 3 stands, SP=4
    Columns Jarinen, Pravola and PPP6, each 2 stands, SP=3

- 64th Infantry Rgt (Veteran)
    As 27th Infantry.
Note 6:  64th Infantry Regiment goes into action at daybreak, 15th December (Day 5)

Midday 11 December.  Concentric attacks have destroyed
III/759 Battalion, and severed the road east towards the Soviet
frontier.  But the Finns were already finding that
the 163rd Division was not going to die easy...

Special rules:

1.  Marching road speed, 3 hexes.
2.  Finns (mounted on skis)  can travel off roads at 2 hexes per turn.
3.  Lakes are frozen and may crossed on foot.  Any troops on lake hexes at nightfall must be moved off onto an adjacent land hex if one is available.
4.  Lacking skis, the Soviets are road-bound.  If they move off road for any reason (voluntarity or otherwise), they must move, or try to move (by attacking the enemy) back onto the road - unless their SP has been reduced to 0.  If a unit's SP has been reduced to 0, it is assumed to be in sauve qui peut mode, and is attempting to flee across country.
5.Soviet moves across country, moving off road, or onto a road, are at one hex only for all troop types.
6. At the end of each day, the following night move is used to recover 50% of lost SP (rounded up) excluding those of units reduced to 0 SP and subsequently (or consequently) destroyed.  No unit may recover more than 50% of SP lost (again round up).  Take note of unit SP at the beginning of each day to determine losses and returns at day's end.
7. (This I didn't think of at the time, but seems like a good idea).  The 163rd Division LOG element is good for 1 day out of supply.  If the roads north and east are cut off, 163rd becomes out of supply, unless and until communications ( a clear road to the map's edge) can be restored.  Out of supply, and LOG exhausted, the Soviets can not recover lost SPs overnight.

Final Note:

Although this special rules are pretty punitive against the Soviets, I found this quite an exciting action to play through: fluctuating fortunes, and a near-run thing.  This was no walk-over for the Finns...

Useful sources:

Far from the only, but I found these the ones I tended to revisit several times.  Neil Patterson pointed me to the first of these, the best account I have seen of 9th Army's operations and the Finnish counter-measures.  
4. (In Ukraine Cyrillic, you can use the internet 'translate into English' feature.