Sunday, September 24, 2017

Worst Case Scenario #15: A Pint-Sized Campaign for the Battle of Ortona

A few years ago I painted up a force of WWII Canadian infantry and a troop of Sherman tanks with the idea of staging a game set around the 1943 Battle of Ortona - 'Canada's Little Stalingrad'.  

I've enjoyed reading JohnM's posts recounting his group's playing of several Normandy-based campaigns using the Too Fat Lardies ladder system. So, suitably inspired, I thought I'd give it a try by creating a series of interlinked scenarios based on the historical actions leading up to and including the battle for the Italian coastal town. 

'Reinforcements Moving up in the Ortona Salient' by Lawren Philips Harris

In the Lardies' campaign system, 'At the Sharp End', players typically take on the role of opposing platoon commanders, whose abilities and 'character' are reflected by their success (or lack thereof) on the tabletop. Due to the fact that several battalions were involved on both sides during the struggle for Ortona, there would be no distinct individuals to give a continuous personal narrative to the campaign, so I decided to have the results of each engagement affect the tactical makeup/character of the subsequent scenarios, thereby (hopefully) creating an overarching story narrative. Here are the four stages, or chapters, which make up our pint-sized campaign:

  1. Castle Sterlin / Casa Berardi on the Moro River Line
  2. Outskirts of Ortona
  3. 48th Highlanders Attempt the Flank on Cemetery Ridge
  4. The Final Push to the Castello

Map showing all four themed mission areas.

Map detail of the Ortona missions.

Scenario #1: Castle Sterlin and Casa Berardi


The first engagement of the campaign, and the subject of this AAR, is based on the assault on the defences of the Moro River line, a few miles south of Ortona. These were held by men of the 90th Panzergrenadier Division, a polyglot formation made up of sweepings from the North African and Sicilian campaigns. So while they were all hardened veterans, it was a force that was largely worn-out, exhausted and on the brink of dissolution. Nonetheless, the German corps commander in this sector hoped to bleed the Canadians with the 90th while trying to avoid the early commitment of his crack Fallshirmjaegers to the battle. He wanted the parachutists held for the struggle for Ortona.

Arrayed against the Germans on the south bank of the Moro River were three brigades of the 1st Canadian Division. This was a relatively fresh, but largely untested force. While some battalions saw action in Sicily, others were quite limited in their combat experience. This was an army made up of the sons of those who gained fame at Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele and the Hundred Days, in fact many of the older officers saw action in many of those battles, and so the Canadians of the 1st Division wished to prove that they were made of the same mettle as their forefathers.

This scenario is a composite of two closely related actions which occurred during the Moro operation, both involving the taking and subsequent defence of two strategically situated farmhouses: 'Sterlin Castle' and 'Casa Berardi'.


'Sterlin Castle' took its name from the leader of its defenders, Lt. Mitch Sterlin of the Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR). 

On December 10th, 'Sterlin Castle' was a front-position outpost to the main RCR positions. With riflemen at the doors and windows, Lt. Sterlin positioned the platoon's Bren guns in weapons pits outside the structure. The firefight that ensued was ferocious. The enemy attack finally exhausted their ammunition and the light machine gunners escaped in the direction of the river, leaving eleven men of No. 16 Platoon remaining inside the house. 

'Sterlin Castle' as it exists today.
Six remaining German machine guns targeted the structure, and in mid-afternoon, the Germans assaulted the building once again. Enemy dead were stacked up against the walls, with one officer killed in the act of trying to force a grenade into a window and another just four feet away trying to give cover fire. Artillery concentrations called down around the house killed thirty Germans. An hour later, Sterlin was able to pull out with the survivors to rejoin the Hastings regiment. Lieutenant Mitch Sterlin was subsequently killed in the fighting for Ortona, and given a posthumous Mention in Dispatches.


The second action, fought on the 14th of December, saw  Cpt. Paul Triquet of the Royal 22e of Quebec City, known as the 'Van Doos' (an anglicized pronunciation of the French for '22') take and hold a stone house called Casa Berardi.

By late in a day of brutal fighting, Triquet was the sole surviving officer of his battalion's assault force. He reorganized the remnants of his units into two platoons under the two remaining sergeants, and spurred them forward. "There are enemy in front of us, behind us and on our flanks," he warned. "There is only one safe place, that is on the objective." 

Casa Berardi then and now.

The attacks continued. Ammunition was short; there was none following, and no one who could be sent for it. The wounded were treated hurriedly, and left where they had fallen. A Mark IV approaching along the road was first blinded by smoke laid down by a supporting Sherman, and then destroyed by tank fire through the smoke. In the late afternoon Casa Berardi was finally taken by the Van Doos, and the indomitable few fought on almost to the crossroads. Finally the enemy's mortar fire stopped them, and the survivors, less than fifteen, drew back to the big house. A count revealed five Bren guns and five Thompson submachine guns on hand, and a woefully small supply of ammunition. "C" Squadron had four tanks left. With these slender resources Triquet organized his defences against counter-attack, and issued the order, "Ils ne passeront pas!" (They shall not pass!) The small force held out until reinforced during the early hours of the 15th.

Captain Triquet was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions that day. 


The Terrain

So with these two actions in mind I decided to combine them thematically into one scenario.

Positioned near the center of the tabletop is a large Italian farmhouse (The Casa) set alongside a crossroads. The Casa is ringed by several smaller structures, all of which have been shattered by recent artillery strikes. Large shellholes offer some options for defensive emplacements, or as launch points for assaults. The roads are lined with low stone walls, often broken in places. A small vineyard, gone to winter fallow, is behind the farmhouse. All of the ground except for the roads and buildings/ruins is to be considered extremely boggy from the seemingly continuous winter rain. Any vehicle will have a very high chance of becoming bogged down if it tries to maneuver in this morass (any doubles rolled on 3 dice).

Here is a map of the scenario. My apologies for the awkward hand-drawn attempt, but after a long day parked in front of a computer monitor I take inordinate pleasure in the simple fun of sketching and colouring maps for our games.

The map of Scenario #1: Casa Berardi / Sterlin Castle

The Combatants  

The Germans start with a small screening force (one section, or two teams) in or near the farmhouse. 

The remainder of their force sits waiting off-table, poised for a counterattack. It is composed of a panzergrenadier kampfgruppe made up of two reduced infantry platoons (each commanded by a Senior Leader) along with some armour support in the form of a Mk IV, a StuG and a Hetzer. This counterattacking force will be made available once the German players(s) expend a 'filled' a Chain of Command die (ie. accrued 6 Chain of Command points). The Germans are veterans, but always add a +1 to their 'Bad Things Happen' checks to reflect their combat exhaustion.

The Canadians will launch their assault from the south edge (bottom of the map following) with their entire force. 

It is composed of a full strength infantry platoon, an artillery observer from a 3" battery, and a reduced squadron of three Shermans from The Ontario Regiment (they have their own Level III armour leader). The Canadians are considered Average, but are Aggressive in close combat.

Victory Conditions

The Canadians will need to quickly neutralize the German screening force and take up positions in and around the Casa before the German counterattack falls upon them. They need to hold the position until reinforced later in the day (ie. when four turns have passed), or by breaking the German counterattack. Either of these two events will mark the end of the battle.

The Germans need to hammer the Canadians as hard as they can as they are playing for time and blood. If they can break the Canadians they will buy valuable time for their Fallshirmjaeger comrades in their defensive preparations in Ortona. Also, any allied armour kills will carry forward to affect future availability of Sherman reinforcements for the Canadians.


Our Replay

In the patrol phase the Germans (Stacy) occupied the Casa with one section of panzergrenadiers in the upper floors. 

The Canadian infantry (Peter) advanced on a broad front with one section straight up the central road while the two others took to coming up the right flank. The Shermans (Jeremy) began with one tank on the road while the other two took the calculated risk of maneuvering in the boggy ground near the center. (They later became bogged and were immobilized for the rest of the game but served as gun bunkers for support.) 

The three allied tanks opened fire on the upper floor of the Casa, ultimately bringing down its roof. The Germans squad, minus a few casualties, were forced to scramble down to the second level to relocate their defensive position there. The Canadian infantry, under the protection of the tanks' fire, advanced towards the farmhouse, taking some desultory return fire from the pinned down Germans. 

As the Canadians closed in for the kill, the German player (Stacy) decided that caution was the better part of valour and it would be best to pull out his chewed-up German squad to defend the jump-off point positioned just behind the house. At this point it was looking pretty bad for the Germans as Stacy had very few Chain of Command points saved up for the counterattack and Peter and Jeremy were pushing hard.

But lady luck pitched the scales to the Panzergrenadiers' favour in a big way, when, just as the Canadians were about to storm the Casa, Stacy rolled four 6's allowing him to immediately bring in his counterattacking forces and maintain the initiative.

A fresh Panzergrenadier squad leapt from the jump-off point and stormed into the Casa, while a Mark IV panzer and a Hetzer rolled down the road towards the Casa to challenge the single Sherman that had not bogged down. The tables had been turned and the Canadians were caught on their back foot. It was a brand new game now, and the tension was ratcheting up!

Mark IV and Hetzer coming up the road to face off with the Shermans...

With his dander up, Peter decided to grasp the nettle and storm the Casa to clear it of enemy forces. The ensuing close combat turned to be bit of a rude shock as the Germans benefitted heavily from being in a good defensive position. The Canadians suffered heavy casualties and were bundled out of the Casa to regroup down the road, tending to their wounded. The Germans, while bloodied, maintained their firm hold on the building.

The remnants of the Canadian section regroup behind a Sherman bogged amongst the ruins of a house.
Nearby, on the flank, the Canadians were being hard pressed by a heavy German counterattack, supported by a tripod deployed MG42 and the not too distant panzers. Peter decided to take another risk by having his Forward Observer request a barrage just in front of the Canadian lines. Without the benefit of spotting rounds to allow correction this could have gone very, very badly - definitely a 'Danger Close' moment.  

Canadian Forward Observer team: MVP award for the game.

But the winds of fate turned again with the barrage landing right on target, pinning most of the panzergrenadier force and causing several casualties amongst the entire kampfgruppe. Artillery barrages are particularly nasty in Chain of Command as they can last numerous play rounds, causing havoc and pinning down troops, which this one did for the entire remainder of the game, pounding the German lines, whittling away at their squads bit-by-bit.

Next, Jeremy's only unimobilized Sherman edged forward down the road and sent a armour piercing round ricocheting off the Mark IV's armour, shocking it's crew. The two tanks would exchange three volleys before the Sherman gunner 'got in his eye' and knocked out the panzer. 

The Sherman nudges forward to take a shot at the Mark IV.
The Mark IV is knocked out and the remainder of the German counterattack begins to falter.

Scenario #1 Conclusion

At this point nightfall had arrived and the fighting ebbed. I declared the scenario to be a draw, but not entirely inconclusive - both sides had met some of their goals, while failing to achieve others. 

So, how would the scenario's results affect the next game in the campaign?  Well, due to the time bought by Stacy's skillful defence of the Casa, the Fallshirmjaegers will benefit from some additional defensive benefits in 'The Outskirts of Ortona' mission.  But in turn, the 90th Panzergrenadiers would no longer play any supporting role in the campaign as the Battle for the Moro had crippled it as a fighting force.

We'll move onto the second chapter in a few weeks and I'll try to keep a log of our progress.

Next: A sally mission in Renaissance Italy.