The “First” Battle of Tobruch

In any typical game of AFRIKA KORPS, there are two distinct “Battles of Tobruch.” The first occurs in the late spring and early summer of 1941, and centers around Rommel’s offensive to push the Commonwealth off of the escarpments that both parallel the Coast Road (Via Balbia) and closely ring the fortified port city of Tobruch. The purpose of this Axis offensive is to bring the British fortress under siege and, by so doing, to release the bulk of the Deutsches Afrika Korps for an eastern drive towards Alexandria. The second battle can take place either immediately after the conclusion of the first, or at some later stage in the game; it will typically begin on any game turn in which the Axis commander decides it has become strategically imperative for his forces to capture Tobruch through direct assault.

As an interesting historical aside, it was during this same time period — May 15 to May 27 1941 — that British General Archibald Wavell ordered an offensive by the British XIIIth Corps, “Operation Brevity,” against Rommel’s advanced forces near the Egyptian-Libyan border, and at Fort Capuzzo and the Salum Pass. The British were repulsed with heavy losses after encountering, for the first time, Rommel’s tactic of screening his tanks with antitank guns. The German 50mm, and more particularly the 88 mm guns decimated the advancing Commonwealth armor. This is an event that is virtually impossible to duplicate — not that any sane British commander would ever want to — in any competently-played game of AFRIKA KORPS.

This essay will focus on the first battle of Tobruch, and the several tactical and strategic challenges it poses for both the Axis and the Commonwealth player. It will present a set of illustrative, but quite plausible, moves on the part of a hypothetical Axis commander and his make-believe Commonwealth adversary. It is assumed that the reader already has a thorough knowledge of the game rules and of the general flow and tempo of a typical AFRIKA KORPS match between two experienced and knowledgeable opponents.

Setting the Scene

For the purposes of this analysis, the battlefield situation opens with the arrival of the 15th Panzer and a third supply unit at the Axis Home Base on the May I 1941 game turn. At this point, there has not yet been any combat and the British 1-1-7 in Bengasi is on the verge of elimination after two turns of isolation.

In most AFRIKA KORPS games, the arrival of the German 15th Panzer Division on May I, is the cue for the strong Commonwealth units holding the western crescent of the British line to withdraw from their forward escarpment positions and fall back towards Tobruch. The reason for this retreat is simple: if the Commonwealth units do not pull back on the May I game turn, not only will the newly-arrived 15th Panzer be able to join forces with the 21st Panzer, but the Italian divisions that have been straggling up the Coast Road and across the desert will all reach the battle area in time to support a major attack against any of a number of points along the British front. Obviously, circumstances will occasionally arise in which such a retreat may not be necessary. None the less, when facing an experienced and aggressive Axis player with more than one supply unit in the battle area, the Allies are usually better served to withdraw and allow discretion to get the better part of valor. Unfortunately for the Commonwealth commander, General Wavell, once these outer escarpments are abandoned, his defensive problems multiply, particularly against a well-supplied foe. And to add insult to injury, the British player will still have to make do with his starting forces, at least for a few more game turns. This is because the Allied Army does not begin to receive reinforcements until June I. Given these facts, it is no understatement to say that May-June ’41 can be one of the most nerve-racking periods in AFRIKA KORPS for the Commonwealth player. The British commander has lots of ground to defend, and very little to do it with. And, against an expert opponent, he has almost no margin for error.

Comparing the Belligerents

Two very different armies, each with its own strengths and weaknesses, face each other at the end of the May I ’41 game turn. For that reason, this essay will take a few minutes to contrast the qualities that characterize the two opposing forces before actually getting down to examining the particulars of the first Battle of Tobruch.

In this Corner, the Axis Challenger

First, our imaginary Rommel’s Deutsches Afrika Korps is as strong as it is going to get until reinforcements arrive on the November I ’41 game turn. At this stage in the campaign, reinforcements hardly matter: Rommel already commands an army of impressive combat power. Typically, one Italian division (Savena) will be left behind to garrison the Axis Home Base, which means that the Desert Fox can call upon two panzer divisions (the 15,th and 21st), one Italian armored division (Ariete), and four Italian infantry divisions (Trenta, Brescia, Pavia, and Bologna) to power his offensive against the British army opposing him. The Axis force has speed, offensive mass (36 attack factors in the main force), and defensive strength (40 defense factors near Tobruch); the only real weakness that the fascists have to contend with is their unit count: Rommel has only eleven combat units with which both to invest Tobruch and to mount an offensive drive against the Allied Home Base at Alexandria. Moreover, in terms of stacking, the Afrika Korps has an enormous advantage over Wavell’s army: one that will persist pretty much throughout the course of the game. In fact, at this stage, Rommel can already mass 18 attack factors in one hex, 26 factors in two hexes, and 32 attack factors in three hexes. On defense, the Desert Fox possesses two units with a defense factor of seven, one with a factor of five, another five units with a defense factor of three, and four units (counting Savena) with a defense factor of two.

In this Corner, the Commonwealth Defender

The Commonwealth starting forces cannot even come close to matching the Deutsches Afrika Korps in combat strength, once the 15th Panzer arrives on the field. The British Army begins the game with a total of 17 combat factors (attack and defense). Unfortunately, one (1-1-7) unit, the 2/2S.G in Bengasi, will be eliminated almost immediately due to isolation, effectively leaving the Commonwealth with only 16 combat factors. Thus, as the first battle for Tobruch is about to begin, Wavell will typically command six weak (1-1-6) infantry brigades, three strong (2-2-6) infantry brigades, and one moderately powerful (4-4-7) tank brigade. Until the arrival of British reinforcements in June ’41, the best stacking that the Commonwealth can achieve is 8 attack or defense factors in one hex, and 12 in two hexes. Once June reinforcements land, the Allied Army will be able to stack — assuming no losses of major units — 11 attack/defense factors in one hex, 17 factors in two hexes, and 20 factors in three hexes. Not until July — again assuming no losses of major units — will the British at last be able to stack 21 factors in three hexes: enough to finally achieve a 3 to 1 against a German 7-7-10, or an automatic victory against a single Axis unit with a defense factor of three!

That Great Imponderable: Supply

Before proceeding into the main body of this analysis, the critical influence of supply and its decisive effect on the flow and tempo of the game should be addressed. AFRIKA KORPS is, at its core, a “supply driven” game system. Supplies are necessary for both armies’ survival, and they are crucial for the attack. Only 1 to 3 or worse combat odds do not require the expenditure of a precious supply unit, so no real forward offensive movement is possible without the attacker possessing a sufficient stockpile of supplies to permit at least two attacks in a row. For this reason, Rommel’s prospects for victory will always be closely tied to the vagaries of the Axis supply die rolls. If the German player rolls badly, then he is going to have a tough time, particularly in the early going when offensive momentum is everything. On the other hand, if he is lucky with his early supply rolls, then the Commonwealth player is going to be under severe pressure for most of the game. Fortunately, probabilities tend to come through in the end, so runs of hot dice tend to give way to stretches where the dice turn ice cold — both players just have to be patient enough for the “laws of large numbers’ to work their magic.

For the purposes of this game analysis, the Axis player, as previously indicated, will have all three of his supply units in the battle area at the end of the May I game turn, and it is further assumed that another Axis supply convoy will arrive during the supply phase of Rommel’s June I ’41 game turn.

Allied Goals

As he surveys the map of the Tobruch battle area, the imaginary General Wavell will have five objectives uppermost in his mind. First, the British Army must shield Tobruch from a direct three-hex Axis attack until the Commonwealth reinforcements arrive on June I. Second, he needs to force Rommel to expend his precious supply — at least two, and preferably three supply units, if possible — before the Axis can bring the fortress completely under siege (control the three hexes adjacent to Tobruch). Third, British forces must deploy in such a way as to maximize the probability of Axis exchange and soak-off losses. Fourth, the British commander must try to retain at least a one hex lodgment on Tobruch’s immediate perimeter as long as possible. And fifth, everything else being equal, Wavell would like to satisfy the first four objectives and still not lose any major (2-2-6 or larger) units except as a result of doubled exchanges.

Axis Goals

Not surprisingly, Rommel’s objectives are the exact opposite of Wavell’s. The Desert Fox wants to bring Tobruch under siege as quickly and economically as possible. Nor does he want to allow the British to control a blocking hex adjacent to Tobruch, if it can possibly be prevented. Thus, the Axis player must plan his campaign against the fortress so as to minimize supply expenditures and combat losses; while, at the same time, the Afrika Korps attempts to inflict the greatest possible damage on the Allied defenders.

May I, 1941: Establishing the British Forward Line around Tobruch

To a large degree, the starting positions of the Commonwealth units at the beginning of the British May I game turn restrict Allied options when it comes to their retreat back to their planned defensive positions around Tobruch. A number of Wavell’s brigades will have begun the game turn too far from the Coast Road (in movement points) to leave it once these units complete their withdrawal from the outer escarpment. Thus, only a few Commonwealth units will actually be able to exit the road for a non-road escarpment hex once they reach the Via Balbia. Fortunately, the British commander has just enough units that can move off the road to build an adequate defense. In addition, the main body of Rommel’s army and its supply is still, at this point in the game, too far west to threaten the section of the British line covering the Salum Pass. This means that Wavell really needs to be most concerned about the units directly screening the fortress (hexes G23, I25, and I27) when the Axis moves forward to attack on May II. And Rommel will attack. With three supply units already on the game map, and the Axis convoy table changing for the worse at the beginning of July, it is virtually certain that an experienced German player will not, if he can possibly avoid it, give the Allies a free “sunk” at this stage in the game. Therefore, given Rommel’s dispositions and supply status, the British commander makes the move that, I will hope to show, comes closest to implementing all of the Allied goals.

The following photo (photo #1) shows a section of the AFRIKA KORPS game map along with the Axis and Allied unit positions at the end of the Commonwealth phase of the May I game turn. The exact positions of all Axis combat units are as follows:
Rommel & Trenta – K16; 21/5 & Supply #1 – P22; 21/104 – O21; 21/3 – R38; Ariete – F15; Brescia – I16; Pavia – C14; Bologna – C11; Savena – W3; 15/8, 15/115 & Supply #3 – J12; 15/33 – N18; Supply #2 – F14. British units are located in the following hexes: 4I/5 – H23; 4I/11 & 2/3 – I25; Pol/Carp – J47; 7A/1 – K33; 7A/2 – M36; 22 Gds & 4I/7 – G23; 9A/20 & 7/3I Mot – I27; Supply #1 – J37; Supply #2 – G25; Supply #3 – J62.

Double click photo to see full screen version enlargement.

The Commonwealth and Axis May I Final Positions: Making the Best of a Bad Situation

With the help of this first photo, let us examine the British defensive positions in order from west to east. To begin with, a single weak infantry brigade (4I/5) is positioned at H23 both to obstruct the eastern approach to Tobruch and to prevent the Axis from attacking the doubled 2-2-6 (22 Gds) and 1-1-6 (4I/7) on G23 at odds greater than 3 to 1. Depending on how aggressive the German player is, he might risk the exchange (highly unlikely) or he might not, but if our make-believe Rommel does make any attack other than the very risky 3 to 1, the hex is still not automatically lost to the British. Thus, reinforcing the 22 Gds with a single 1-1-6 is critical because it both denies the Axis a 4 to 1 on 22 Gds and it will usually preserve British possession of hex G23 unless Rommel is prepared to risk losing one of his 7-7-10s in a 3 to 1 exchange.

As might be expected, our hypothetical General Wavell examined several alternatives and then rejected them, before settling on his final dispositions. The first, and most obvious alternative, was to simply stack the 4I/5 with the 22 Guards on G23. This approach, however, would permit Rommel to take a 5 to 1 attack against the 22 Gds and a 3 to 1 against the 1-1-6. This pair of attacks would increase the prospect of losing the 22 Gds, with only a one-third chance of an exchange against the 1-1-6, and the Desert Fox would still take possession of G23, whatever the actual combat results. Alternatively, Rommel could launch a 4 to 1 against both units, but this option would be only modestly more attractive than the risky 3 to 1, already considered. Adding a second British 1-1-6 is not much of an improvement to the defense, although the German might shift his attacks to a 1 to 2 versus 22 Gds followed by the 5 to 1 against the two 1-1-6s; this change might not protect 22 Gds, but it would retain possession of G23 for the British two-thirds of the time. The other Axis alternative, of course, would be a 3 to 1 against the entire British stack, but this is probably the least likely German response. Another more aggressive British option that was considered and then discarded was to swap the defending units around so that 2/3 and 4I/5 defended G23, two 2-2-6s and one 1-1-6 occupied I25, and one 2-2-6 and one 1-1-6 manned I27. This option was quickly rejected because it virtually guaranteed an attack against I25 with a 5 to 1 against one of the 2-2-6s accompanied by a 1 to 3 soak-off; it would also leave the 4-4-7 with limited mobility and out of the battle for a full game turn as it and 4I/5 trudged back across the escarpment towards Tobruch. Thus, it is clear that, given General Wavell’s strategic priorities, the final British defense of G23 was probably the best choice out of a collection of unsatisfying options. Moreover, the Commonwealth decision on the defense of G23 pretty much dictates the configuration of the other British strong-points around the fortress.

Shifting east a couple of hexes brings us to the most critical position in Tobruch’s outer defensive ring: hex I25. And for this reason, it has the strongest garrison: the 2/3 armored (4-4-7) and the 4I/11 infantry (1-1-6) brigades; five defense factors, doubled. The Axis could attack this entire stack at 3 to 1, but in that unlikely event, a retreat result would not remove the target units from the battle, and an exchange would be quite troublesome to Rommel’s future designs. Flank protection for the Afrika Korps would also be a bit problematic, to say the least. Thus, the powerful 4-4-7 has been reinforced because, if left alone, the Axis player could attack the lone 2/3 armor from J25 and J26 at 3 to 1. Assuming the combat result was neither an exchange nor a d elim, the 4-4-7 would be retreated to G23, followed by an Axis advance to I25. Italian infantry and armor could then attack H23 from H22 and I23 and guarantee a German advance into H23. This Axis move, although risky, might actually be worthwhile. It would leave General Wavell with only two strong (2-2-6) brigades, and a few 1-1-6s with which to defend Tobruch for one full game turn, while the units in G23 worked their way back across the blocking escarpment towards the fortress. The other serious positional problems that this Axis move would create for the Commonwealth are obvious and do not require further elaboration.

Because the 21st Panzer can attack hex I27 on May II, the British player, unless he wants to gamble, has no real choice but to position a pair of strong (2-2-6) infantry brigades in this important hex. Like I25, this position is too important to allow an audacious Axis commander to capture it a full turn too early with a surprise coup de main.

The remaining 1-1-6 Commonwealth infantry brigades are spread out across the eastern desert so as to prevent the lone German 21/3 Reconnaissance Battalion on R38 from reaching the Coast Road. Just as important, these two weak brigades must also screen the Salum Pass, particularly hexes K35 and K36 from any interference from the same troublesome recce battalion. Finally, Pol/Carp occupies J47 just in case 21/3 decides to make a “down and out” dash for the Allied Home Base: a mission that, absent an Allied response, the 21/3 recce could accomplish on the Axis portion of the June I ’41 game turn.

The following photo (photo #2) shows a section of the AFRIKA KORPS game map along with the Axis and Allied unit positions at the end of the Commonwealth phase of the May II game turn. The Germans have assaulted the British outer defenses, and Wavell has pulled back to conserve units and to increase the potential for German soak-off loses from the next round of anticipated Axis attacks. Rommel used a supply during this turn’s combat and now has two remaining supply units in the battle area. The final positions, after combat, of all Axis units are as follows: Rommel & Brescia –J22; 21/5 – M29; 21/104 – O31; 21/3 – Q49; Ariete, 15/8 & 15/115 – H23; Trenta – J21; Pavia – K25; Bologna – K26; Savena – W3; 15/33 – K27; Supply #1 - N29; Supply #2 – M28. Surviving British units occupy the following hexes: 4I/7 & 22 Gds – G24; 4I/11 & 2/3 – H26; Pol/Carp – P54; 7A/1 – J37; 7A/2 – J36; 9A/20 & 7/3I Mot – H25; Supply #1 – I37; Supply #2 – G25; Supply #3 – J62; Supply #4 – S66.
Double click photo to see full screen version enlargement.

The Commonwealth and Axis May II Final Positions: Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire

Rommel, after surveying Wavell’s dispositions, has opted to take a single 7 to 1 against 4I/5 and advance the three attacking units into the vacated enemy hex. While it is usually a poor use of resources for the Axis to use a supply unit to destroy a single Commonwealth 1-1-6, in this particular instance, the Desert Fox considered this attack worthwhile. The reasons for his decision are several. First, the attack requires no soak-offs and carries no risk of an exchange. Second, the d elim is a guaranteed result, along with the advance into H23. Third, even if a convoy does not arrive on June I, Rommel will still be in a position — with two supply units in the battle area — to launch at least one more assault against the British around Tobruch before Wavell’s reinforcements arrive in June. Moreover, the decision to launch a limited offensive allows the Axis player to push his remaining armored units east towards the Salum Pass and the Egyptian-Libyan border. It also allows the German commander to dispatch 21/3 on a raid deep into British Egypt. The deciding factor in our hypothetical German commander’s calculations, however, is the presence of all three Axis supply units on the map. Had he begun the May II game turn with only two supplies on the map, then the Desert Fox would have either had to attack the 22 Gds at 1 to 2 followed by another 5 to 1 against 4I/7 and accept the risk of an A elim on the 1 to 2, or maneuver for another turn while his army concentrated around the Tobruch perimeter.

To a certain degree, Wavell’s response to Rommel’s May II move is beyond his control. 22 Gds and 4I/7 have no option but to fall back to hex G24. 7A/1 and 7A/2 are obliged to establish the block at the Salum Pass, and Pol/Carp has no real option but to move into the desert in order to prevent the roaming German 21/3 from interfering with future defensive arrangements around Mersa Matruh or points east. This means that only four Commonwealth units have any appreciable freedom of maneuver. How these four units should best be deployed, however, is not as simple or obvious as first meets the eye. For starters, no matter where Wavell positions his remaining 2-2-6s, the Desert Fox is going to be able to attack at least one of them at 5 to 1 or better odds. Moreover, it is during the Axis portion of the June I game turn that the critically valuable 2/3 armor is most at risk. Given that his goals for this battle have not changed, Wavell chooses to position 2/3 and 4I/11 on hex H26, and 9A/20 and 3I/Mot on H25. As the final Allied dispositions are being made, our hypothetical British commander recounts to his staff, and in some detail, the reasons behind his defensive arrangements.

First, Wavell explains that his decision to defend H26 with 2/3 and 4I/11 is aimed at preventing Rommel from making a June I “isolation” attack on this unit, thereby guaranteeing its elimination. If 2/3 is left to defend H25 by itself, then an aggressive Axis commander can attack the unit from either the two easternmost or the two westernmost hexes at 3 to 1 and, if a D back 2 is rolled, retreat the 2/3 away from Tobruch and into encirclement and isolation, once several of the attackers have advanced into H25. This advance, of course, would also force the Commonwealth to abandon the remaining two perimeter hexes during their part of the current move. Reinforcing H25 with 4I/11 and defending H26 with two 2-2-6s, simply guarantees multiple Axis assaults in the east. The following Axis attacks, for example, would require the expenditure of only one of Rommel’s supply units and hence, would be quite reasonable: 1 to 2 vs. 9A/20, 5 to 1 vs. 7/3I Mot (advance if possible), and an 8 to 1 vs. 7A/2 in the Salum Pass. Wavell reminds his subordinates that, from the Axis commander’s standpoint, a 1 to 2 soak-off is almost always to be viewed as a virtual gift.

Although this series of attacks, assuming the 1 to 2 is unsuccessful, only seems to force the British player to evacuate H26, the most likely effect will probably be for Wavell to retreat into Tobruch leaving only a single 1-1-6 in either G24 or H25. Given the British commander’s actual dispositions, one obvious question is: why wouldn’t the Afrika Korps attack the 1-1-6s on J36 and H26 at 7 to 1, and soak-off against the 2/3 armor at 1 to 4; a set of attacks that would guarantee the elimination of two Commonwealth brigades and still leave the soak-off unit with a 50% chance of survival. On its face, there is nothing terribly wrong with this set of Axis attacks. However, these attacks do fail in one critical respect: they do not threaten any of the British player’s stronger (the 2-2-6s and the 4-4-7) units. Starting in June, Commonwealth 1-1-6s are going to start flooding the battle area during the summer months, but only one additional 2-2-6 will arrive before November 1941. The sooner the Afrika Korps begins chipping away at Wavell’s major units, the better off it will be. It is, of course possible, given the aforementioned Axis attack, that if the Allied player is feeling particularly lucky when his reinforcements arrive, he might transition into a hyper-aggressive June I defense of the remaining two perimeter hexes. Such a defense would typically place a 4-4-7 and 1-1-6 in G24 and H25, leaving Tobruch to be defended by whichever surviving 2-2-6s still remain along with sufficient reinforcements to bring the defense strength of the hex up to at least five (ten when doubled) combat factors. This defense can be very effective against a timid Axis commander, but it is foolhardy against one who is aggressive and not “risk averse.” The danger for the British is that Rommel will decide to gamble on a 3 to 1 “isolation” attack against the two units in H25. If the Deutsches Afrika Korps avoids an exchange, then Allied possession of Tobruch could suddenly be in jeopardy. This would be a very unhappy situation for the Commonwealth to have to confront this early in the game. In any case, having finished cataloging the several British “nightmare” scenarios, it is time to turn back to the last part of Wavell’s May II defensive arrangements. Here, the only issue left to be considered is the logic behind the British commander’s decision to position the two 2-2-6s on H25. After all, if a single 4-4-7 is vulnerable, why are two 2-2-6s any less so? The answer to this question rests not with the total combat strength of these different units, but with their relative value to the British player’s defensive options: particularly as relates to Tobruch. Thus, the short answer to the previous question is that, while the loss of two 2-2-6s would be unfortunate, it would not be crippling. However, the loss of even one of the two 4-4-7s, means that, against a determined and ruthless Axis player, Tobruch would probably be doomed, for reasons that will be discussed in a later essay. Interestingly, Rommel is subject to the same unpleasant calculus as his Commonwealth adversary: an exchange against a 4-4-7 would be disagreeable but not lethal, but the same exchange against two 2-2-6s would be much more damaging to the Afrika Korps’ long-term prospects. For this reason, it is probably unlikely that our hypothetical Desert Fox would accept the same level of risk to eliminate the 2-2-6s that he would to destroy a single 4-4-7. In a sense, the comparative weakness of the two 2-2-6s actually provides them with a certain level of protection.

The following photo (photo #3) shows a section of the AFRIKA KORPS game map along with the Axis and Allied unit positions at the end of the Commonwealth phase of the June I game turn. The Germans have assaulted the Tobruch perimeter at H25 and have eliminated 9A/20 at 6 to 1; Bologna, however, was lost in the accompanying 1 to 5 soak-off. Because a supply convoy arrived at the Axis Home Base on June I, Rommel still has two supply units on the map (one in the immediate battle area), even though he used supply #2 to sustain his attacks this turn. Wavell’s response to the Axis assault is again dictated by circumstances: he orders all but one of the surviving British defenders either into Tobruch or through the port and out to sea. The first battle of Tobruch is essentially over; now the battle for Egypt is about to begin. The final positions, after combat, of all Axis units are as follows: Rommel – G14; 21/5, 21/104 & Ariete – I25; 21/3 – L46; Trenta - J26; Brescia – J28; Pavia – I28; Savena – W3; 15/8 & 15/115- H24; 15/33 – K35; Supply #1 – O39; Supply #3 – K11. Surviving British units, including the June reinforcements, occupy the following hexes 4I/7- H26; 4I/11, 2/3, 7/4 & Supply # 2 – G25; Pol/Carp – M49; 7A/1 – J37; 7A/2 – J36; 22 Gds & 7/3I Mot – At Sea; Supply #1 – I48; 7/7 S.G. – Q55; 7/7 – J46; 7/4SA Mot – O52; 4I/23 – J47; Supply #3 –P55; Supply #4 – J62.
Double click photo to see full screen version enlargement.

The Commonwealth and Axis June I Final Positions: The “Fat Lady” Gets Ready to Sing

Confronted by a balanced Allied defense with no glaring weaknesses, the Desert Fox settles for a conservative, if uninspired, plan of attack. The Deutsches Afrika Korps attacks 9A/20 at 6 to 1 and soaks-off against 4I/7, 22 Gds, and the 7/3I Mot at 1 to 5. The combat results are unsurprisingly statistical: 9A/20 is destroyed (5/6th chance) while Bologna is also eliminated (2/3rds possibility) in the required soak-off. For Rommel, the combat results are both expected and satisfactory. The elimination of 9A/20 will prevent the Commonwealth from attaining twenty-one attack factors in three hexes, at least until the arrival of the powerful Allied November reinforcements. Moreover, the Axis attack, besides destroying a 2-2-6, also denies continued possession of the two westernmost perimeter hexes to the British and insures that any Commonwealth blocking units on H26 and J36 can both be attacked using a single Axis supply unit.

For the Afrika Korps, the supply rolls now become especially critical. If an Axis convoy lands at the beginning of the June II game turn, then Rommel will have a difficult decision to make. He will have to choose between two courses of action. The first option involves both completing his siege arrangements around Tobruch and, at the same time, clearing of the British block in the Salum Pass: a choice that will immediately relieve pressure on the Commonwealth commander, just when the Allied forces defending Egypt are at their weakest. On the plus side, this decision would also insure that Rommel does not hand the British a free “sunk” during a stage in the game when the arrival of Axis convoys is already only a 50% proposition. The other option is for the Desert Fox to go for a quick knockout blow against the British. If this is Rommel’s plan then he must conserve his supplies and begin an immediate drive against Alexandria while leaving a substantial garrison behind to cover Tobruch. And this is only the beginning; from this point on, the choices will just get tougher for the commander of the Deutsches Afrika Korps.

The Axis attack against 9A/20, on the June I game turn, signals the end of the “first” Battle of Tobruch for General Wavell. He pulls most of his forward defenders back into the fortress, leaving only a token screen in H26 to cause Rommel inconvenience and consternation. But the occupation of the one remaining perimeter hex has another benefit for the British commander, over and above irritating the Desert Fox. It also prevents the Afrika Korps from attaining perfect stacking for exchanges, when making 3 to 1 attacks, with soak-off, against any 4-4-7s in the fortress; such assaults are only possible once the third perimeter hex has been wrested from Allied control. Until that critical third hex is captured, the Axis player is forced to eliminate ten factors in an exchange against a doubled 4-4-7 in Tobruch.

The British commander initiates the next stage of his defensive plan by embarking his surviving 2-2-6s for Alexandria and by reinforcing 2/3 and 4I/11 with a new incoming armored brigade, the 7/4. Wavell chooses to maintain a strong garrison in Tobruch, but not an overwhelming one. He decides that so long as he has two 4-4-7s in Tobruch, almost any third unit is sufficient. This is because, if the Afrika Korps mounts a 3 to 1 against both a 4-4-7 and the 1-1-6, then it cannot mount a 1 to 2 against the remaining 4-4-7. A one-turn capture of Tobruch thus becomes extremely difficult unless the Axis player is prepared to take some very serious risks. From this point on, Tobruch will probably be an inactive front. The new and very critical challenge for Wavell will be the defense of Egypt and with it, Alexandria. This campaign, however, is a subject for another discussion.

A Few Final Ruminations

In the course of this essay, a number of assumptions have repeatedly been made as to the expected reactions both of our make-believe Rommel, and of the hypothetical General Wavell. The first is that, all things being equal, neither commander will be prepared to take imprudent risks during the early turns of the game. This logical convention does not rule out the use of risky attacks, it simply assumes that, for a player to actually conduct them, the benefits of such attacks must be commensurate with the risks. Therefore, the assumption has been made throughout this essay that if a player really wants to place his faith in the die, he will go ahead and gamble no matter what course his opponent follows. In addition, there is an expectation that both players will tend to operate with a clear idea of their respective goals during this early phase of the game. That is: they will both know what it is that they want to accomplish as they position their game counters. The respective goals of both the Afrika Korps and the British Army during this first Battle of Tobruch are generally clear and unequivocal. And thus, it is the second assumption underpinning this analysis that very few experienced players will act in contradiction to those goals during the early game turns.

AFRIKA KORPS is a very long game: thirty-eight game turns, in fact. Those game turns represent a lot of opportunities both for cleverness and for mistakes. Moreover, the different stages of the game, as did the actual campaign, tend to see the initiative and advantage swing from one player to the other, sometimes unexpectedly. This is what makes this old “classic” interesting; it is also what really tests the skill of its players. As the game progresses, things will not always be so obvious or clearly defined as they are during the first few game turns. In fact, the opening, middle, and end game of AFRIKA KORPS each has its own pace and rhythm. For that reason, being able to understand the flow and tempo of AFRIKA KORPS, and to act accordingly, is typically the main winning characteristic that separates the expert tournament competitor from the merely good player. Not surprisingly, it is the most difficult, and time-consuming aspect of the game to learn. But it is also why, after all these years, I still have never grown tired of it.


  • Wow! It has taken me a few days to digest all of this - and I'm wishing I'd brought AK back with me last weekend so I could set these up and play around with them in the hotels as I travel!

    The screen shots are a GREAT addition!

    The clearly defined goals and the analysis for the sides? That's top drawer material! Best I've read!

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