An Allied Interlude: The Ever Creatively Name Operation Linebreaker (Up to T42)
As Loki falls back to the Po river (or, alternatively, cunningly draws me into open terrain near the Po river to enact a counterattack), it seems like a good time to interlude.
After the allies take Rome, both sides face a major strategic decision. Namely, how much effort do you put in to Italy? For the allies this essentially boils down to one of three variants:
Rome and Home. Leave enough troops in place to prevent a wild hair retaking Italy, but then focus your efforts on a big D-Day and well prepared Dragoon.
Take the Florence Basin. The middling option, favorable because you have plenty of time to do it, a modest VP reward, and a natural flow of reinforcements that basically does your planning for you.
Go All the Way. This is a big one. If you can break out into the green fields beyond the Apennines, there are both a lot of VPs and a couple strategic variants that open up. But you need to put in enough effort to get over the Apennines – 70 miles of slugging terrain.
(The Germans don’t have such clear cut geographical delineations, which in many ways makes their decision all the harder for it not being obvious: how much do you leave in Italy? If the Germans overbid, then the big show in France may face shortages of critical units. If they underbid, the allies might pick up a lot of VP reasonably cheap. If they get it just right, while they probably won’t stop the Allies entirely, they can make it a VP negative campaign. Due to interior lines on the continent, this decision can shift much quicker than the WA.)
So, why the hell would you, as an allied player, sign up for a 70 miles slugfest that diverts troops from NWE, fighting in bad weather, through bad terrain, all while resources steadily flow back to England? Why did I do it?
First and foremost, I wanted Italy to be a real threat theater when D-day came around. I wanted Loki to have to choose between giving up lots of VPs or dragging enough forces away from NWE to actually make a stand in the open terrain north of the Apennines. Either one would be a win.
Second, the potential for not only immediate VPs, but access to VPs while the bloody post landing battles are underway. This comes in three forms. First, by crossing into the garrison zone you deny the Germans VPs that they were going to get for setting up a line they needed to set up anyhow. Second, the Tuscan cities represent a modest supplement when taken – there is a failure option where if you think you can’t make good, you can happily bank a cluster of cities without having to penetrate the mountains. Finally, the green fields beyond are very rich. Nearly the equivalent of a second France when you add them up. If you can get there cheaply enough, it’ll feed in VPs that help offset the loss period of D-Day and the drive to the Rhine.
And that’s the rub. To do N. Italy, you have to do it cheap in terrain designed to make it expensive, otherwise from a VP perspective all you did was draw on VP with an inefficient force allocation.
Loki withdrew in good order from the Rome operation, and initial attempts to break in from the march failed. So I knew he more or less not only had his army intact, but would have time to dig it in as well. In case I hadn’t got the message that the pursuit was over, three weeks of losses battering Rimini before the weather shut me down and my western Corps commanders refusing to drive home what were -ahem, attacks that maybe looked more sensible from above - reinforced the point well enough.
On top of which, I counted three panzer divisions, three panzergrenadier divisions, one FJ division, two mountain divisions, and Schmalz – oh and a few Corps of solid infantry - marched into the line, including the truly obnoxious 12th SS. Nothing says “you shall not pass” like a unit that can individually turn even light woods into an “X” defense, and also has the striking power to potentially push any single allied division.
The picture of Loki’s defense shaped up in January. Essentially he was going to deploy his forces with the FJs and an infantry Corps supported by smaller mechanized elements locking down the Adriatic, a parcel of mountain infantry holding the largely pointless central-east mountain ranges, and the piece-de-resistance, five full heavy divisions committed in the Florence/Center region to make sure any one hex would be a slaughterhouse. The only apparent weakness was the fact that the west was held by a “mere” five infantry divisions and some unknown mech elements, thought to be in regimental packets.
It looked like an extensive forward defense, relying on the terrain rather than units to provide depth. And relying on the fact that pushing a panzergrenadier division out of a well fortified city would be brutally violent. Breaking in would be hard, but I might be able to grab a second or third hex on a good day.
I didn’t know what the LW was looking like, but his tactical bombers had been fairly intact up to this point, and the long pause after Rome probably meant his level bomber force had rebuilt to a steady plateau. I completely failed to account for the RSI air force, who gleefully interrupted my air plans throughout the campaign.
Looking at that defense, it became clear that doing this the straight forward way would quickly negate the entire point of the operation.
Remembering our previous game, I also recalled that when Loki was forced into fighting one hex up, then over, then over, then pause and shift, then a hex up somewhere else on the line, then over, ad nauseam, the fight took nearly nine months and was bloody. It shattered army group C in the process, but that was not as valuable to me as presenting a threat near D-Day. And as the Germans I didn’t have nearly the assets available that Loki did (he really did withdraw far better than I did.), so presumably it’d be far worse.
I decided that all I really cared about was going north on any angle that would let me. Break north and the cities would follow, as would the eventual displacement of the German army. Anything else was bound to be too bloody and too time consuming to get what I really wanted. Supporting this, the same terrain that made it hard to kick the Germans out allowed long narrow thrusts to be reasonably confident in not being cut off (whoops...so that may have been an overly bold assumption).
The details were opportunity driven: find a weak point, any weak point, and start going north along the axis of least resistance. Don’t bother with taking the Italian Stalingrads. A secondary consideration was that, if possible, I’d try to fight the mech in the mountains (they suffer penalties there) so they’d be worn down for the plains, while avoiding pointless battles with the infantry who would be much more vulnerable at the end of the phase. The goal was to be a real threat to Bologna by June where keeping me in check meant taking panzers away from NWE.
From there, I decided it would be a two phase execution.
The first phase (Operation Uppercut) would involve finding a weak point along the west and starting to drive north in a menacing manner. Besides hopefully snagging some cities and even maybe, just maybe pocketing some units against the Med if I got really lucky, it would no doubt draw in a lot of Loki’s forces. Either from the Rimini area, or force armor to re-deploy out of it’s strong defensive positions.
Besides helping to turn a line, this helps in a very practical manner in Italy in a way that isn’t as true in NWE – the week a heavy division drives through the mountains, it suffers heavily from supply loss and disruption even from the shorter moves, it is unfortified, and suffers a combat penalty in the dense terrain which penalizes vehicles and rewards infantry. In short, for one week it is weak enough to be hammered badly if you strike with everything in your arsenal. Blast enough heavy divisions, and the line starts to give way. At that point it’s just time and pressure to find enough cracks to flow through, particularly if you don’t care exactly where you do it.
The great threat would be that I figured Loki had one solid counter-attack in his forces. The Germans as always would be singing the tune “I ain’t as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I ever was.” Until that attack came I would need to keep an assault Corps on hand just in case the worst happened and he actually cut a spearhead off. I didn't really think this would happen, but felt I had enough time that it was better to keep a reserve than a massive risk for little gain. I wish I could say this was prophetic, but it was mostly just not seeing a good reason to take a risk.
With Loki driving that way, the stage would be set for the landings near Rimini (Operation Short Hook)i, unlocking the eastern part of the line and, if fortune favored, maybe jumping the Ravenna-Forli line as well. If it could catch and destroy the 4th FJ, so much the better. You may notice this part never happened, invalidating many weeks of invasion prep, but given the circumstances I’ll take it.
At the end, I hoped to be postured on the north side of the mountains with enough combat power to cover the whole front and have two active assault sectors when the next drives began.
The drive started OK, after some abortive runs at Pisa, with the designated assault Corps finding a line to take in the middle. Then Loki went all in on a counter-attack with virtually everything in his inventory. And it worked. Crap.
This was the moment of decision; if I could break that, he would have just drained the combat power of virtually half of his elite units. And German elite units simply don’t rebuild well unless given tender care. Even one attack may mean the rest of an operational phase with reduced CVs unless you’re rich enough to rotate units to the rear. Even with Loki’s deployment, that seemed unlikely.
As it turned out, that went better than expected; the assault Corps and the four hundred or so aircraft set aside for the eventuality turned out to be up to the task. The airpower smash on the HG and 26th, combined with a two corps attack, destroyed ~250 tanks in one turn, routed the 26th, and set up the next axis of advance. From there, a simple operational methodology arose – drive forward, wait for the mechanized response, blow it to hell with air power while it is uncovered, find a new weak point, drive forward, do it again. Keep moving north somewhere as long as possible so you’re always fighting low level forts and units that just marched. Shortly the HG was routed, as was part of the 90th PG, then an infantry division (+) was battered and by and large the bulldozer got moving along a very narrow front with sweepers coming up behind whenever Loki had to displace. Loki managed to contain the first axis of advance, but began committing the air force and had to weaken the center sector to do it. One final “eraser” air effort – literally flying 1800 aircraft strike missions seven days a week against a single division while another 500 went into gaining air superiority - blew open the path to Bologna and pushed the southern axis air forces past the point where they were willing to stay stuck in. Only twenty miles left to the city…
Loki rushed to cover the hole, and to be honest had thrown up a defense that would have required me shift axis again. I wasn’t going to get through 3x PZG units fast enough or cheap enough to hit my goals. Through sheer luck, I still had the divisions on the east coast that had been tagged to Short Hook, the landings that never happened. They managed to threaten the Ravenna-Forli sector quickly as Loki shortened his line, threatening an envelopment. Loki withdrew for reasons only he knows, but I like to think it was the threat of losing a chunk of the army…though it’s probably a clever plan I’ll see too late.
So that’s where we are today – the allies advancing out of the Appenines in mid-apirl, tentatively picking up the cities south of the Po, aware that there are still lurking panzers and without the natural shields of the mountains that allowed earlier audacity. And of course, both sides eyes are drawn north as the summer weather approaches...
Tailored Air Strikes: While few people have the time or will to tailor every mission, Italy is unique in that you are rarely fighting over more than one hex. Which means you can spend a good bit of mental effort optimizing the strike on a given target. This proved very effective. As far as mechanics, I concluded that FBs in direct attack work best against armor (though they largely only damage and disrupt the better stuff until you pile on with theater wide resources.) The American FBs carrying a pair of 1,000 lb bombs seemed to execute this role particularly well, whereas I was disappointed in the Hurricane IVs twin 40mm package.
In addition, personally setting the strike so all several hundred aircraft hit at once seems to produce more casualties than the default settings. The downside is that if you reach the point where you have supposedly disrupted the entire division (you haven’t, but your troops apparently disagree), you may see a wasted strike that doesn’t attack until the next day in the week – the default setting hits far more consistently, but for a lot less casualties. And most importantly, it seems like the really big one package strikes break the threshold to starting killing tanks. I don’t know why, it just seems to do it.
In Italy, Mr. Hart is Correct: Reasonably obvious to everyone without me saying it, but it is reinforced here. You take terrain in Italy indirectly, by threatening other terrain, not by storming it frontally. NWE with it’s far different force ratios and generally more open terrain offers less opportunities in this regard.
GS Missions, The Quite Important Shield: While the offensive value of GS missions is mostly reactive and therefore more helpful during exploitation, the superb value of a GS mission actually lies in it's defensive properties. Besides the fact that the FBs do a lot more damage to troops attacking than those defending, this is your ace in the hole against enemy counterattacks – and even more importantly, your immediate shield against enemy GS when you attack. In one mission, literally one German FW-190G got through, where it killed 70 men and I think three tanks, and disrupted many more. Loki had 50+ in the GS, most of whom got shot down or turned away by my own fighters in GS mode. Had I attacked without a GS up, I’m pretty sure the casualties would have been horrific as all 50 played merry hell.
The mechanical way to guarantee air cover is to add escort fighters to the GS mission, though it appears some part of the local air superiority missions also come in.