An Allied Interlude: The End of The Beginning
In my (humble?) opinion, there are only really three variants on Sicily. An all in approach to Husky, an early run on the outer islands, or an early entry to Italy. They each set up some interesting follow ons, but I chose an early Italy because of two things. First, it accelerates the Italian surrender, which usually ends the German supply network south of the Bifana. Second, it offered me a chance to count Loki’s guns before the next major move.
As for the air war, there are only two: do you start body blows early (on whatever target you think may weaken the Germans) and thereby get a head start on lowering production and stopping plant expansion, or appease your political masters with targets that will only marginally slow down the Wehrmacht (bomb for VPs)? Since I had no indicators the plants were expanding and don’t have the long range fighter strength to duke it out over S. Germany - many of the big tank, truck, and key air factories are here - with the LW yet, I decided that a few extra weeks of hardware production were an acceptable trade for increased operational freedom on the ground. VPs it was.
There were two things I knew about the enemy, and one I did not. This drove a lot my decision making.
First, bombers. After last campaign and replaying some of the early landing files, I have a healthy respect for the full might of the German bomber force. I also know that while you cannot actually destroy the force until later, the natural math means they only have a couple good fights in them before they plateau at a reduced capacity. A fully committed pristine bomber force can make any landing prohibitively expensive, getting worse as the Allies make their way north. Additionally, they cause the most direct damage when they catch a second wave coming in to the beaches – which they inevitably will on any crucial landing. I wanted them to commit hard and early while the stakes were low, fighting over sea areas that I wasn’t moving troops through.
Second, the three elite units on Sicily. The 15th PZG, PzG Schmalz, and HG Panzer are each formations that can mount indefinite defenses if they make it back to the mountains. I wanted at least one of them dead. Preferably two, but at minimum one (Loki, in turn, confessed he was willing to spend one and planned on doing so – maybe I underbid?). Even though they can be rebuilt, re-built units never have quite the sting to them; probably because of their base morale.
The unknown was just what Loki was going to bring to the table. The Germans start emptying the cupboards immediately to send stuff south. You just never know how much, or if they have sneaky tricks like the 4/4 thing that means they’re bringing more down than you thought. I wanted a plan that would have him show his cards without actually getting mowed down to find out. The more units he committed, the better – and if that caused panzers to burn out tracks on movement, a pleasant bonus. Plus, if you watch the formation names, you can guess what they’ve left on the outer islands. When 90th PG and 16th Sturm didn't show up, I had a strong suspicion I'd be seeing them off-mainland.
After measuring some range rings and wargaming the movement requirements, I decided that I could present a real threat to Loki’s withdrawing forces without actually being at risk myself. More importantly, I could do it in an area where clouds of fighters would be capable of ranging after bounding the Africa squadrons forward. Hence the two pronged approach. It satisfied both the need to look very scary while leaving a bunch of unoccupied sea-space open to a battle of annihilation in the air.
Of course, the line between “threat” and “bait” can be thin – I was positive that I could create a land bridge immediately post landing on account of the zones of control and giant mountain blocking German mechanized movement, but was in no way sure that even relying on a single penetrating line I could keep the sea open. Still, I figured if anything would make the Germans pile in, it would be a British division that both posed real issues and looked vulnerable. And since they had no second wave coming by sea, that would be the perfect place to take the shine off the bomber fleet early.
With the door shut, a new TF would be sent to blockade Messina to sink any pesky escapes. You may notice that didn't happen.
The air war would be simple: hit the U-boats early, hit the Ruhr, and hit the Hamburg area and keep the VPs rolling. Just in case I maybe, you know, miscalculated that land bridge bit.
Be careful what you wish for…
The good news was that, yes, I got an air battle with the bombers and a dead PzG division out of it. I have no illusion that the bombers are gone, but every fight reduces their maximum capacity just an irreplaceable bit. Better to have a few hundred in the kill column when things really get going. I'm generally of the opinion that while the LW bombers will always be something you have to think about, even into '45, they rapidly decline to a mid-grade threat after a few hundred losses. The spend the rest of the war hovering around that point, being depleted and rebuilt to their baseline each time.
I got to see just what Loki was bringing to the table. It’s a lot – the difference in experience here really tells in the number of the divisions he could safely send south by the second week.
I also got the nice Italian surrender. Hopefully this will make the upcoming battles near the Crati line and the drive to the Bifana easier.
What I failed to account for was just how much damage properly loaded bombers can do to the TFs. Nothing sank, but when the western beach-head TF went to over 50 in one week, the TF scheduled to blockade Messina had to be sent in their place to keep the port open (less important) and provide the all essential naval gunfire (without which XIV panzer would simply punch through to Regio). So HG sailed away through the path that was supposed to be guarded.
In other marginal news, my positioning is essentially Sicily +. There is a natural line in front of me at Crati. What remains to be seen is if that matters or if collapsing German rails take me to the Bifana on the cheap or if I’ll pay a blood price for forcing the line. Hint: Loki has packed panzers and FJs on the line, so it's trending towards the latter...
The strategic air war went over without any great surprises. A modest VP reward, but not the soul crushing 15 VP a turn some players are up to by now.
All in all, a toehold in Italy, happily climbing forward in VPs with aggressive action still a viable option, so I’ll mark this down as a satisfactory variant.
TFs can get hammered. Really. In just one turn. Plan accordingly.
The Schwerpunkt remains the key tactical concept, even with - maybe particularly with - the Allies. Making this gambit work meant going all in; no diverting airpower to secondary nice to haves, not even patrolling the eastern beaches after Loki showed his hand. Blowing a hole for the land bridge with the entire tactical airforce and keeping the lanes open with a single minded focus from everything else is what kept it from disaster.