Storming the Fortress: The ‘Second’ Battle of Tobruch, Part I
INTRODUCTION TO PART I
This post is the latest installment in a set of essays which examine, from differing angles, the unique strategic role that the fortified port city of Tobruch plays in Charles Roberts’ classic game, AFRIKA KORPS. Each of the previous articles addressed a different aspect of the operational and psychological tug-a-war between the Axis and the Commonwealth over control of Tobruch, and the crucial effect of the fortress on the flow and tempo of this simulation of the North African Campaign. The earliest essay, The ‘First’ Battle of Tobruch, analyzed in some detail both the goals and the lines of play that are most often pursued by experienced players during the opening moves of AFRIKA KORPS. The follow-up piece, Perception, Reality, and Luck, attempted to refute — or at least to strongly challenge — one of the oldest and most wide-spread criticisms of this Avalon Hill classic: that the final outcome of AFRIKA KORPS is excessively dependent on luck; and that the game will too often come down to a single die-roll because of the baked-in and ever-present possibility of a desperation low-odds Axis attack against Tobruch. This third, two-part essay considers what I believe to be both the best Axis approaches to capturing the fortified port through storm, and the most effective and economical Commonwealth strategies for defending, or at least postponing Tobruch’s fall, in the face of a determined Axis assault. To that end, the following analysis will present several sets of illustrative, but quite commonplace moves, on the part of a hypothetical Axis commander and his make-believe Commonwealth adversary. Also, for the purposes of this discussion, it is assumed that the reader already has a thorough understanding of the Third Edition game rules and of the general flow and tempo of a typical AFRIKA KORPS match between two experienced and knowledgeable opponents.
The World War II campaign for North Africa immortalized many previously unknown and foreign-sounding place names: Benghazi, Bir Hachim, Gazala, El Alamein, and Alam Halfa, to name only a few. Of all of these odd-sounding, unfamiliar points on the map, however, none became more famous than the small Mediterranean coastal city of Tobruch. In the half-century-old Avalon Hill conflict simulation, AFRIKA KORPS, the port of Tobruch, at least in game terms, continues to hold the same importance as it did during the epic, see-saw battles of 1941-1942. For this reason, before actually beginning this discussion of the ‘Second’ Battle of Tobruch, I believe that it would be time well-spent to invest a few moments in examining the many unusual features that combine to make the fortified port city of Tobruch such a critically important element in this classic, Charles Roberts design. This examination, of course, is almost a case of “carrying coals to Newcastle;” because Tobruch, in the eyes of virtually everyone who has ever mastered AFRIKA KORPS, is the one crucial terrain feature that truly regulates the strategic 'heartbeat' of the entire game. In fact, the fortified port’s one map hex (G25), is, quite possibly, one of the single most important map hexes to appear in any wargame ever published.
The reasons for Tobruch’s strategic significance are both varied and interesting. To begin with, it is one of four objective hexes that the Axis must control — that is, unless the Deutsches Afrika Korps (DAK) manages to eliminate every last Commonwealth combat unit from the map board — in order to win the game. The other three objective hexes are the Axis Home Base, Benghazi, and the Allied Home Base at Alexandria. Interestingly, of these four key objectives, only Tobruch and Benghazi are fortresses. Also, Tobruch and the Axis and Allied Home Bases are the only three port hexes on the entire AFRIKA KORPS game board; however, Tobruch is the only fortress/port hex in the game and, more importantly, the only port that can be used, depending on who physically controls it, by either side. Geographically, Tobruch is, as “the crow flies,” almost equidistant between the Axis and Allied Home Bases: 39 and 38 hexes, respectively. This central location is of special significance to both players because, once Tobruch is captured by the DAK, its availability for use as an Axis ‘port of entry’ halves the transit time necessary both for Rommel’s supplies and for any newly-arriving combat units to road-march east to the El Alamein front. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, possession of Tobruch increases the replacement rate of whichever side controls it. Beginning on the March I ’42 game turn, the side that garrisons Tobruch — even if the fortress is besieged — receives one extra replacement point at the beginning of every game turn that the port is controlled.
Because of Tobruch’s strategic significance, the fortress will typically have a significant psychological effect on the decision-making of AFRIKA KORPS players of all skill levels; it could hardly be otherwise. However, the legitimate importance of Tobruch will sometimes skew the judgment of inexperienced and even relatively seasoned AFRIKA KORPS hands in odd and unpredictable ways. An otherwise competent Commonwealth player, for example, may allow himself to become so alarmed at the prospect of Tobruch’s premature capitulation that he ends up sacrificing the cream of his army in a bloody and largely futile effort to hold the fortress for an extra turn or two. By the same token, even an experienced Axis player — disappointed by unlucky combat results, poor supply rolls, or both — may, on occasion, convince himself that his only option is an early, all-or-nothing, low-odds attack on Tobruch. Both panicky player reactions are certainly understandable, but, in my opinion, both are also unwarranted. In the first case, while it is an indisputable fact that the early loss of Tobruch is almost always a worrisome development for the Commonwealth; it is also true that the fortress is a long way from the Allied Home Base. If the bulk of the British armor can be preserved, then even after Tobruch falls, Rommel will still have to battle his way through a formidable Eighth Army and much difficult terrain before the Deutsches Afrika Korps finally fights its way into the streets of Alexandria. In the second case, the Axis player will almost always be better served to table his plans for an early desperation assault on the fortress. AFRIKA KORPS is a long game (thirty-eight turns) and, from the Axis standpoint, the issue of the fortress really does not need to be resolved, one way or the other, before the March I ’42 game turn; a powerful, mostly intact DAK can inflict a great deal of damage on the Allied army before that game turn finally arrives. And even if Rommel’s fortunes don’t markedly improve, the Axis low-odds attack that was so tempting in October ’41 will not be any less so in February ’42.
Finally, no discussion of Tobruch would be complete without an examination of the peculiar tactical limitations that the fortress and its environs impose on play. The port city of Tobruch, because it borders the Mediterranean Sea, is abutted by only three land hexes; thus, once the Axis assault begins in ernest, the fortress will be surrounded by enemy units on one side and water on the other. This also means that, in light of the AFRIKA KORPS stacking rules, the port’s garrison can only be attacked by, at most, nine Axis units. Thus, prior to the arrival in the battle area of Rommel’s November reinforcements and assuming no major losses, the Deutsches Afrika Korps can muster a maximum of thirty-two attack factors against the port’s defenders; after the arrival of the Axis November reinforcements on the scene, this factor count increases to thirty-four. The potential defensive strength of Tobruch’s British garrison is also affected by the calendar: starting on the June I ’41 game turn, the Commonwealth player can stack a maximum of eleven factors (two 4-4-7’s and a 3-3-7) in the fortress; beginning on November I ’41, the arrival of two additional British 4-4-7’s allows the defensive count to increase to twelve. Not surprisingly, the fact that Tobruch is a fortress has both obvious and not so obvious effects on play. The most important result of the port’s special status as a fortress, of course, is that all units defending in Tobruch are doubled on defense. This will usually mean that, if the Axis player decides to commit his army to a low-odds assault against the fortress, the best attack that he will be able to mount is a 1 to 1. And because an Exchange result against twenty-two or twenty-four defense factors is almost always a game-breaking blow to future Axis prospects, this really means that Rommel has only a 33% chance (D Elim or D Back 2) of success with this type of assault. For this reason, such a low-odds attack should be contemplated by Rommel only as a last resort: the combat odds and the ‘laws of large numbers’ dictate that this type of attack is going to fail twice as often as it succeeds. The one other unique characteristic of fortress hexes in AFRIKA KORPS is that zones of control (ZOCs) do not affect them in any way. This means, in short, that ZOCs never extend into or out of Tobruch or Benghazi; also of note, supplies stacked with combat units in a fortress cannot be captured unless all of the supply counter’s accompanying combat units have been eliminated, and a victorious attacker survives to advance into the supply unit’s hex.
Spring Battles and Summer Plans
In every game of AFRIKA KORPS, there will come a point at which the Axis player must finally bring an end, once and for all, to Commonwealth control of the fortified port city of Tobruch. However, while this assault can come as early as June 1941, it has been my own experience that such a precipitous attack is actually quite rare, particularly in expert play. Timing-wise, most experienced Axis commanders will choose instead to launch their main effort against the fortress sometime during the early middle-game (September 1941 to February 1942). Hence, although the issue of a British-held Tobruch must certainly be dealt with by the Axis player at some point in order to achieve victory, it need not, nor is it even likely to be resolved early. Instead, most early Axis moves will be directed at creating the conditions in the battle area that will make a summer raid into Egypt possible. This typically means that during the initial game turns — those of spring, 1941 — Rommel’s operations will be directed towards the more modest, but critically important goal of bringing Tobruch under siege; that is: of driving the British back into the fortress and then establishing undisputed Axis control over the three hexes that directly border the port city. The appeal of choosing this strategic approach —at least for expert AFRIKA KORPS players — is obvious: once Tobruch has been invested, Rommel’s forces immediately gain almost total freedom of maneuver. This new-found operational scope will usually encourage seasoned Axis players to bypass the fortress and instead to launch the bulk of the Deutsches Afrika Korps east across the Libyan-Egyptian border as soon as possible. The opportunity cost to the Axis of such an offensive is actually very low because securing the DAK’s line of communications during this phase of the game is relatively easy. Protecting the Axis rear usually requires only that a garrison unit (oftentimes the Rommel counter) continue to occupy the Axis Home Base, and that a small contingent, typically only two Italian divisions, be deployed to screen the British garrison in Tobruch.
The vast majority of expert Axis players choose this line of play because the advantages of a temporary postponement of the all-out assault on Tobruch are several and compelling. First, any hasty attack on the port’s garrison, even if successful, carries with it a significant risk of debilitating Axis casualties at precisely that stage of the game when the Desert Fox can least afford them. Second, and perhaps even more important, the British opportunity cost of protecting the port city is dauntingly high: the combat strength required to defend the fortress inevitably puts a heavy strain on the already thinly-stretched Commonwealth army. For example, to successfully protect the port, the British commander is usually obliged to garrison Tobruch with three units, at least two of which will probably be the powerful but scarce 4-4-7 armored brigades. Also, an experienced Commonwealth player will almost always hold at least two units off-map in order to replace any initial losses — should the Axis player suddenly choose to launch a surprise assault against Tobruch. This built-in need for both a ‘strong’ garrison and for readily-available reserves means that the Commonwealth field army — at least until the November reinforcements arrive — will have little in the way of real combat (stacking) power with which to block Rommel’s panzers as they push into Egypt. Third and last, the fortress and its British garrison aren’t going anywhere. So long as Tobruch is kept under siege and the bulk of the DAK is within one-turn’s movement range of the fortress, the port can be attacked at any time the Desert Fox chooses.
The Raid into Egypt
Of course, in AFRIKA KORPS, almost anything is possible. Hence, an early-game, do-or-die assault on the Tobruch garrison is always at least a slender possibility. However, such a gamble by the Axis player — for the reasons I have already outlined — is actually so rare as to be almost unseen in expert play. Therefore, the prudent Commonwealth player should expect, as soon as Tobruch is invested, that Rommel will marshal eight or nine units and 30 to 32 combat factors and quickly invade Egypt so as to threaten Alexandria and inflict casualties on the out-numbered Commonwealth forces that bar his path. This phase in a typical AFRIKA KORPS match — ‘the Raid into Egypt’ — will usually begin on or about the June II ’41 game turn and extend at least until the first September turn of the same year.
Of course, just because our make-believe Desert Fox has a significant advantage in available combat power, doesn’t mean that he is going to go very far. In actuality, during these critical summer and fall game turns, the flow of Axis supplies will dictate both the pace of the DAK’s advance and the volume of British casualties. If Axis supply rolls are statistically average, Rommel will probably be in a position to attack Commonwealth front line units three or four times before the impending arrival of the powerful British November reinforcements begins to seriously weigh on Axis options. On the other hand, should the Royal Navy succeed in turning back a higher than normal number of Italian convoys, then the Desert Fox’s capacity to drive east and cause substantial damage to the British field army will be significantly reduced. And there is also a third, admittedly remote, possibility: that the Axis player will enjoy fabulous supply luck during these critical early ‘41 game turns and will inflict greater than normal losses on the Commonwealth. This scenario, needless-to-say, is every British commander’s worst nightmare. However, even in this instance, while it is certainly conceivable that Alexandria might be captured by the Deutsches Afrika Korps because of exceptional early-game luck; in matches between two expert players, this occurrence is really exceedingly rare. Instead, it is far more probable that the British Home Base not only will not fall to the DAK before the November II ’41 game turn; it will, most likely, also not be in any immediate danger of doing so, either. Nonetheless, under these challenging circumstances, the Commonwealth position will still be in great jeopardy, and the British player must plan accordingly. If Rommel is both determined and lucky, then the Allied Home Base may well fall prey to capture by an all-out Axis winter offensive aimed at seizing Alexandria before replacements begin to appear, starting in March of ’42.
One final note regarding the ‘Raid into Egypt’: at its outset, Rommel will be able to exert almost absolute control over the general direction of events on the battlefield; however, this situation will almost certainly change in the fall of ’41. This is because, while AFRIKA KORPS is, at its heart, a ‘supply-driven’ simulation; it is also a ‘calendar-driven’ game. What I mean by this is that, however well or poorly the Axis player fares during the first summer’s campaign season, come September or October of 1941, Rommel will usually be compelled to make his second critically important strategic choice of the game. That is: should the troops of the DAK press stubbornly on towards the British Home Base, or — now confronted by the impending arrival of powerful Commonwealth reinforcements — should they instead prepare to withdraw back towards easier-to-supply, less exposed ground father to the west? This is, in my opinion, the most significant decision that the Axis player will make in the entire course of a match; unfortunately for Rommel, this choice will probably not be dictated so much by the Desert Fox’s preferences, as by the hard realities of the battlefield.
Hundreds of matches have taught me that every game of AFRIKA KORPS has its own unique rhythm; nonetheless, the September/October ’41 game turns typically present the Axis commander with one of three very different battlefield situations when it comes time for him to plan for his future operations. In the worst case (weak) scenario, Rommel — plagued in the early game turns by poor supply luck — will be faced by a largely-intact, forward-deployed enemy field army; that is: the British will occupy strong positions on the escarpment and Coast Road near Mersa Matruh, Commonwealth combat losses will only exceed Axis losses by seven or fewer factors, the Allies will still have at least three 2-2-6’s on the map, and all three of the most powerful British brigades (two 4-4-7’s and the 3-3-7) will still be in play. More commonly, of course, the Axis player will find himself in somewhat better (or at least, average) shape; that is: the British will be dug in to a solid position well west of El Daba, Commonwealth losses will total eight to thirteen factors more than those of the Axis, and although the three strongest British brigades will still be on the map, two or more 2-2-6’s will have already made their way to the ‘dead pile’. The third and most advantageous (strong) circumstance for the DAK will arise, of course, when supplies have been unusually plentiful, combat results have been extremely favorable, and Axis soak-off losses have been minimal or nonexistent. In this exceedingly rare game situation — when even the stars seem to have aligned for Rommel — the battle area will look something like this: the surviving Commonwealth forces will have been driven back at least as far east as the El Daba-Ruweisat line, British casualties will exceed those of the Axis by fourteen or more factors, and at least one of the strong British brigades or three or more of the 2-2-6’s will have been destroyed in combat. As noted previously, the actual circumstances of any particular AFRIKA KORPS game’s battle area will probably vary somewhat from these very broadly-framed descriptions; nonetheless, each of these different contextual blueprints is representative enough to be useful in mapping out one of the three basic patterns into which the ‘Second’ Battle of Tobruch will typically fall.
Rommel Attacks: Three Possible Battles for Tobruch
Long time AFRIKA KORPS players, not surprisingly, all have their own ideas about the best strategy for the final Axis offensive against Tobruch; and those views — shaped as they are by individual experience and personal predilections — may well differ somewhat from those that will be presented here. Nonetheless, I think it is safe to say that, whatever else happens in an AFRIKA KORPS game, most expert players will agree that, in terms of timing, the ‘Second’ Battle of Tobruch will virtually always fall into one of three basic categories: the pre-November ‘Fall’ offensive against Tobruch; the post-November ‘Winter’ attack on the port; and the much less frequent ‘Mop-up’ assault on the fortress; that is: an offensive that only occurs on those rare occasions when the Axis capture the Allied Home Base before taking Tobruch. Of the three, the ‘Fall’ or ‘September II’ offensive, because it is both the most popular and the most likely to occur of the three, will be considered first.
End of Part I of The ‘Second’ Battle of Tobruch
The second (Part II) installment of The ‘Second’ Battle of Tobruch will continue this discussion with a detailed examination of the timing and tactics of the ‘Three Different Battles of Tobruch’ from the vantage points of both the Axis and the Commonwealth players. In addition, it will also analyze several of the most commonly-used moves and countermoves of the two belligerents, and the effects of several different Axis plans for the reduction of Tobruch on the overall operational ebb and flow of AFRIKA KORPS.
See my blog post Book Reviews of these titles; all of which are strongly recommended for those readers interested in further historical background.
THE WEST POINT ATLAS OF AMERICAN WARS (Complete 2-Volume Set); edited by Brigadier General Vincent J. Esposito; Frederick A. Praeger, Inc. (1959); ASIN: B000MTBTEU