Storming the Fortress: The ‘Second’ Battle of Tobruch, Part II
INTRODUCTION TO PART II
This post is the second and concluding chapter in the essay, The ‘Second’ Battle of Tobruch. In the first installment, the early (spring-summer 1941) strategies and goals of the Axis and British commanders were considered along with the contextual factors that typically determine the timing, psychology, and execution of the crucial, all-out Axis attempt to drive the British out of Tobruch. In this installment, the specific details of the several different Axis approaches to the final reduction of the fortress will be considered; in short, this essay will offer an analysis of the actual battlefield tactics employed by both sides during the ‘Second’ Battle of Tobruch. A word about definitions: typically, the ‘First’ Battle of Tobruch is the term applied to the early moves of AFRIKA KORPS, during which the British-controlled fortress is first encircled and then brought under siege by the units of the Deutsches Afrika Korps; the ‘Second’ Battle of Tobruch is the term commonly-used to describe the protracted, typically bloody, and sometimes game-deciding struggle for the final control of the fortress.
THE ‘FALL’ OFFENSIVE
Preparing the Battlefield
For the Axis player, the ‘Fall’ offensive strategy has two simple and mutually-reinforcing goals: to destroy the strongest (4-4-7, 3-3-7, and 2-2-6) Commonwealth units and, if possible, to capture Tobruch before the powerful British November reinforcements enter the game. For my own part, I will usually choose this approach for the Axis if, at the beginning of the September I '41 game turn, the overall situation in the battle area is more-or-less average. That is: the British have lost a minimum of eight more combat factors than the DAK. In addition, it is also usually essential for the Allies (because of previous battles) to have been pushed well to the east of Mersa Matruh, and Axis losses to be low (two or fewer Italian infantry divisions). That being said, if our hypothetical Desert Fox actually opts for this strategy, then he must set up for this series of attacks early (but not too early) because the timing of this operation is critical.
Typically, for the ‘Fall’ offensive plan to have a reasonable chance for success, the Deutsches Afrika Korps must stage to within striking distance of Tobruch during the September I player turn. Then, the DAK, assuming a sufficient quantity of supply is available, can launch the assault on the fortress beginning on the very next game turn. Needless-to-say, Axis supply rolls are crucial to the success of this operation. Still, if Rommel starts his assault with at least two supply units on the map, then, because of the proximity of the Axis Home Base, he can probably expect to attack the British garrison somewhere between two and four times before Commonwealth reinforcements swarm onto the game map on November I ’41. Admittedly, like any plan, the timing of this operation has both advantages and disadvantages. So let us now examine both, in turn, before moving on to consider the specifics of the battle itself.
For General Rommel, the most obvious upside of an early ‘Fall’ offensive is that the Commonwealth commander, our make-believe General Wavell, can call on only a limited number of ‘strong’ units with which to defend Tobruch. This means that, until his November reinforcements arrive, the British player has only two armored 4-4-7’s, one mechanized 3-3-7, and probably two or at most three infantry 2-2-6’s to shoulder the main burden of defending the port. Interestingly, this collection of Commonwealth brigades is actually somewhat less impressive than it first appears. Obviously, the 4-4-7’s are the lynchpins of any British defense of Tobruch; but, because of the Axis ability — prior to the arrival in the battle area of Rommel’s November reinforcements — to stack thirty-two attack factors adjacent to the fortress, the 3-3-7 and the 2-2-6’s are all vulnerable to five-to-one automatic victory (AV) attacks as soon as even one of the 4-4-7’s is removed from the garrison. Thus, unless it is stacked with the two 4-4-7’s at the outset, the British 3-3-7 will oftentimes not play a major role in the defense of the port.
Another potential benefit of the Axis launching a ‘September II’ attack is the possibility of an early capture of an Allied supply unit. This possibility arises — assuming that the Axis player is able to dodge a doubled exchange and also that there are still several game turns remaining until November — the turn after one of the two British 4-4-7’s is eliminated. Again, the problem for the Commonwealth player is stacking: both his own and Rommel’s. Once a single 4-4-7 is eliminated, the possibility of successful (inexpensive) Axis low-odds attacks dramatically increases the threat of a one-turn capture of the fortress by the Deutsches Afrika Korps. Of course, the Allied supply unit in Tobruch can temporarily shuttle out to sea, but it or another supply counter must land at the port within two game turns or the British garrison will expire due to isolation.
Finally, a less obvious, but very real inducement for Rommel to exercise the ‘Fall’ option is that it provides the Axis player with a certain amount of flexibility should his initial round of attacks on Tobruch go badly; something, it should be remembered, that is going to happen 33% of the time. Thus, even if the initial Axis assault produces a doubled exchange, the impending arrival of fresh Axis troops will still permit the DAK to rapidly transition into some variant of the ‘Winter’ offensive once Rommel’s November reinforcements physically reach the battle area.
No game strategy, of course, is ever perfect; thus, as we might expect, the ‘Fall’ offensive has two disadvantages that are each serious enough to warrant discussion. First, the success of an early assault on Tobruch is absolutely dependent on the Desert Fox receiving reasonably good supply luck at precisely that time in the game when the convoy table is, from the Axis standpoint, least favorable. With a 50% chance of a sinking on each game turn, it would not take too much bad luck to dash Rommel’s prospects for a sustained assault on the port. The second major problem with the ‘September II’ offensive is that it is front-loaded in terms of risk; that is: if the Axis player rolls an exchange against the 4-4-7 on the first attack, then the early offensive — barring, of course, a “Hail Mary” low-odds follow-up attack — is pretty much over. The exchange loss of eight factors is not, by itself, fatal to Rommel’s long-term prospects for victory; but such an outcome does make it imprudent (if not foolhardy) for the DAK to continue its offensive against the fortress until the November reinforcements can come east to bolster the Axis forces around Tobruch.
Needless-to-say, after weighing the advantages against the disadvantages, Rommel will, more often than not, still decide to launch a ‘September II’ offensive. However, before moving on to a detailed discussion of the coming battle for Tobruch, I think that it would be useful to briefly review and ‘flesh-out’ a few of the (previously-mentioned) situational assumptions that will form the foundation for my future comments about the tactical choices associated with an Axis ‘Fall’ offensive. For the purposes of this discussion, these basic assumptions do not really need to be highly detailed, so force levels and unit positions typically will be described mainly in general terms. That being said, let us first consider the situation of our hypothetical Axis player.
To begin with, it is assumed that the DAK will thus far have lost only one Italian division and that the Axis will have eleven units and thirty-six combat factors near Tobruch; the Axis Home Base garrison, by the way, should have already been relieved by Rommel on the July II or August I game turns, and this last Italian division (probably Division Savena) should arrive in the battle area on or before the October I game turn. Further, it is also assumed that the Deutsches Afrika Korps is deployed so that virtually every Axis combat unit will be able to reach a hex adjacent to the fortress in one move; and finally, that the DAK has at least two supply units on the map at the beginning of the September II ’41 game turn. Thus, with the DAK supplied and poised to attack, let us now consider the Allied situation.
First, for the purposes of this exercise, it is assumed that the British player has already lost between ten and fifteen combat factors, but that these losses have been limited mainly to 1-1-6’s and, at most, two 2-2-6’s; further, that the Commonwealth occupies positions east of Mersa Matruh; that three units garrison Tobruch (at least two of which are 4-4-7’s). And finally, that at least one 1-1-6 has been held off the map in reserve, while an additional 2-2-6 is currently at sea (shuffling into and out of the fortress from turn to turn). Obviously, circumstances will vary slightly from game to game, but this description is, I believe, a fairly accurate depiction of the overall situation at this stage in a typical AFRIKA KORPS match. The stage is now set for the ‘Fall’ battle for Tobruch.
Tactical Considerations: Round One
Having decided to assault Tobruch beginning on the September II game turn, how Rommel chooses to organize the initial attack on the fortress will naturally depend on the initial composition of the port’s garrison. Because the strongest possible Commonwealth defense of Tobruch — at least during this stage in the game — is two 4-4-7’s and the 3-3-7; it will be this initial British defense that is considered here. This Allied defensive combination — for reasons that will soon become apparent — is actually relatively uncommon, nonetheless, it is always a possibility. Confronted by this formidable trio of defenders, Rommel’s best option will usually be to accept the 1 to 3 and 1 to 4 soak-offs, and to attack the remaining 4-4-7 at 3 to 1 (surrounded). This attack requires twenty-eight combat factors and eight units (seven units, if Division Ariete is used). It should be noted, however, that although Ariete could be used either for the soak-off at 1 to 4, or for the 3 to 1, the increased risk of Axis losses will usually make either of these options unacceptable. Therefore, assuming that the recommended plan is followed, this set of attacks will leave Division Ariete free to screen the Salum Pass area (oftentimes, hex J38), and at least one of the two German 2-2-12 reconnaissance battalions to cover Ariete’s southern flank; alternatively, the 2-2-12 — in an effort to discourage the lone British ‘recce’ from attempting to sneak too far west using the deep desert hex rows — might also take up a menacing position somewhere along one of the southern (U or V) hex rows, but within range of the Coast Road. Obviously, there are numerous other moves available to the Axis player in this situation, but this one is the most economical and, more importantly, the least likely to ‘blow-up’ in Rommel’s face. It should be noted that a one-turn debacle is a real concern because, during this stage of the game, the most critical worry for the Axis player is not so much a reduction in his combat strength as it is the loss of too many units. In any case, faced with the strongest possible Allied garrison, our hypothetical Rommel sucks it up, sends the panzers forward, and then rolls the die.
Several outcomes, of course, are possible given the preceding set of combats, but assuming statistically average results, the most probable consequence of these several attacks will be that the British 4-4-7 is eliminated at the cost of a single Italian soak-off unit. At this point, the Commonwealth commander will have to ask himself a crucial question: just how much is it worth to him to hold on to the fortress? It is a question with no easy answer. If General Wavell evacuates the port and leaves the defense of Tobruch to a single 1-1-6, he will save the bulk of his armor and, once the November reinforcements arrive, will be able — because of better-than-normal Allied stacking — to fight the DAK in the open desert on relatively equal terms. However, the decision to give up the fortress without any further serious resistance, particularly in 1941, will almost always seem to be such a huge gamble that very few Allied players will actually have the stomach to take it. Instead, in the great majority of matches, the Commonwealth commander will not even consider evacuation; on the contrary, he will choose to stand fast and to fight for the fortress to the bitter end. Unfortunately, this perfectly understandable decision immediately puts Wavell on the horns of yet another dilemma: if he leaves the 3-3-7 in Tobruch, it can be AV’d; alternatively, if he withdraws it, then he will have to defend the fortress — at least for one game turn — with a 4-4-7, a 2-2-6, and a puny 1-1-6 (remember, at least one 1-1-6 has been sitting off-map). This defensive arrangement — because of the increased number of attractive Axis attacks that it makes possible — is, if anything, even worse. To add to the British player’s woes, he must decide on a defense before he sees the result of the Axis supply roll. Given his two equally unsavory options, the Allied commander will probably decide to leave the 3-3-7 and his supply unit in Tobruch, and to reinforce the port with the 2-2-6 that was already at sea. In addition, since he has decided to continue the fight for the fortress, the Allied player will also probably embark his last remaining 2-2-6 (assuming that it can reach Alexandria) in order to insure that even if Rommel attacks the 2-2-6 and the 3-3-7 in the fortress at 3 to 1, the Commonwealth will still be able to garrison Tobruch with three units on the October II game turn. Finally, in a modest attempt to support the besieged fortress, General Wavell will usually order his field army west, but will probably take pains to keep most of it out of the (supplied) reach of the German panzer divisions next to Tobruch. Of course, once the British player’s defensive arrangements are completed, his best and most fervent hope, not surprisingly, will be for a string of Axis supply sinkings.
Tactical Considerations: Round Two
If General Wavell gets his wish and the Axis October I supply convoy is sunk, then Rommel really has no choice but to halt the offensive pending the next turn’s supply roll. However, the Axis army should not be idle even in this situation. Instead of hunkering down near the fortress for a turn, the troops of the DAK should immediately redeploy to the east so that they can threaten both Tobruch and the small Commonwealth field army that has probably been cautiously creeping west along the Coast Road and onto the coastal escarpment. This pause in the action will, of course, arise 50% of the time; unfortunately for the British, the other 50% of the time, Rommel will be able to continue his offensive without a pause.
In this situation, what should Rommel do if catches a break and the Italian convoy makes it past the Royal Navy? At the start of the October I Axis player turn, the Desert Fox will have ten units and thirty-four combat factors within reach of Tobruch. Of course, this might not be the case if the British player has “thrown caution to the winds” and succeeded with a low-odds attack against Division Ariete, but an Allied gamble of this magnitude, at this stage of the game, is extraordinarily improbable; hence, for the purposes of this discussion, such an unlikely possibility will be ignored. Instead, we will assume that, given the forces that Rommel has available in the battle area, the arrival of another convoy virtually guarantees an immediate follow-up Axis attack; the only question is how it will be organized. It is at this stage that the ‘risk-reward’ calculus, personal predilections, and long-term goals of the Axis commander really come into play. However, this is also the point in the game during which a skillful Commonwealth player can, at very little cost, really begin to interfere with Rommel’s plans. So before analyzing the pros and cons of the DAK’s various offensive options, I think that it might be beneficial to redirect this discussion temporarily in order to examine one of the most common and pernicious of Wavell’s possible countermoves.
Tactical Considerations: A British Riposte
On its face, serious British mischief-making may seem improbable, but consider the effect on the Deutsches Afrika Korps' operations if, during the Allied September II player turn, an aggressive and cunning Commonwealth commander manages to dispatch his lone reconnaissance battalion deep into the southern desert (to hex U45, for instance). Such a British move, of course, will not be possible in every game: the ‘recce’ may have started the turn too far east, for example, or may even have already been eliminated in combat. Nonetheless, in a significant percentage of matches, Rommel will find himself confronted by exactly this problem and at precisely that time in the game when a ‘suicidal’ Commonwealth ‘recce’ battalion is most inconvenient. Moreover, the threat implicit in this British raid is obvious: if Rommel attacks Tobruch using nine units, while leaving an Italian infantry division to block the Salum Pass, Wavell will send his ‘recce’ racing west, probably to hex V34. This development, from the Axis player’s standpoint, would create an irritating distraction in coming turns: once the British battalion reaches V34, its movement range simply makes it too much of a nuisance to be ignored. Happily, there are several different ways for Rommel to deal with this threat, so let us consider them each in turn.
First, Rommel could temporarily ignore the British 'recce' and take the 5/6ths chance of trading another Italian infantry division for the certainty of AV’ing the 3-3-7 in Tobruch. Unfortunately, on the very next game turn, the Desert Fox would then almost certainly be obliged to dispatch his own two reconnaissance battalions — in a process that could take several turns — to shadow the British ‘recce’ unit until it could be eliminated either through combat or isolation. Needless-to-say, with November just around the corner, this diversion of the only available German reconnaissance battalions would be an irksome waste of Axis combat potential just when it is most needed elsewhere. Therefore, this approach — at least from the standpoint of an experienced Axis player — will probably be a nonstarter.
Second, the DAK could completely break-off the attack on Tobruch and send German mechanized and reconnaissance units into the southern desert to block the British ‘recce’ battalion for a turn while everyone waited for an Axis supply unit to reach this deep-desert section of the front. This response, while conservative, is not totally without merit. It has the advantage of allowing the two Axis supplies a chance to move one turn closer to the battle area, and it may even bluff Wavell into pulling the ‘recce’ back out of harm’s way. Or then again, it may not. If the British reconnaissance battalion pulls back, then, on the October II turn, the Axis can soak-off at 1 to 6 and still AV the 3-3-7 in Tobruch with a surrounded 5 to 1 (assuming, of course, that the 3-3-7 hasn’t swapped places with the 2-2-6 that was at sea). Unfortunately, the British player may get stubborn and swap the 3-3-7 out for the seaborne 2-2-6, while continuing to advance the ‘recce’ west as far as he can. In this case, the DAK would either have to AV the ‘recce’ on the October II game turn (which would divert badly-needed combat power and would also waste a precious supply), or it would have to isolate the little pest using three of Rommel’s ten available units. The other major problem with this Axis response is that it significantly reduces the pressure on the Commonwealth commander by giving up a critically important round of attacks against Tobruch.
Third, Rommel could choose to continue with his attacks against Tobruch (my usual response) while, at the same time, creating a partial barrier to the British ‘recce’ battalion’s continued westward movement. Such a block would typically look something like this: an Italian infantry division would shift east to occupy K35, while the two German reconnaissance battalions moved southeast to take up positions on T35 and W36, respectively. With the two German ‘recces’ in these particular desert hexes, the British reconnaissance unit would be prevented from advancing west without coming within Axis supply range of Tobruch; in addition, because the fate of the next Axis supply convoy would — at this stage in the game turn — still be unresolved, a prudent British player would probably retreat the ‘recce’ east to prevent it from being isolated should the Axis October II supply convoy be sunk. Most importantly, this move would also free seven Axis units and twenty-eight combat factors for the October I ’41 assault on the fortress.
Tactical Considerations: Round Two Resumed
In essence then, Rommel will begin his October I player turn either with the British army sitting passively by, or with an Allied ‘recce’ unit poised to slip around his southern flank. Let us examine each of these situations, in turn.
In the first case, as previously noted, my usual response is to take the 1 to 6 soak-off followed by the 5 to 1 AV against the 3-3-7. This, however, is not the only possible Axis option in this instance. Our hypothetical Rommel could also attempt to increase the rate of British attrition by choosing to soak-off against the 4-4-7 at 1 to 4, while taking a ‘big’ 3 to 1 against the 3-3-7 and the 2-2-6. The problem I personally have with this set of attacks is that, in order to destroy two extra combat factors, the Axis player must put ten of his own needlessly at risk. In my view, this is a very large gamble for a very modest return. The other alternative, of course, is to attack the remaining 4-4-7 at 3 to 1, while soaking off at 1 to 5 against the rest of the British garrison. The disadvantage of this set of attacks, is that — should the Axis player roll an exchange (still a 33% possibility) — then he will lose the ability to AV the 3-3-7 during the next few critical game turns, precisely when the threat of this attack matters most.
The second scenario, unfortunately for the Desert Fox, is a little more challenging. In this situation, the Axis player does not have enough combat power both to screen the Salum Pass and the southern desert, and to still make the 5 to 1 against the British 3-3-7. So what is the alternative? For my own part, I believe that the best option for Rommel is probably to take his chances with the 4 to 1 against the 3-3-7 and to soak-off against the rest of the garrison at 1 to 6. The biggest appeal of this set of attacks is simple: even if things go terribly wrong (a 16% chance), the DAK will lose a maximum of only three units (two 3-3-10’s and a 2-3-4). Obviously, it would be better for the Axis to eliminate the remaining 4-4-7, but by concentrating his attack on the 3-3-7, Rommel cuts his risk of an exchange in half and still destroys one of the Commonwealth’s five strongest units.
The outcome of the second round of attacks, along with the next two supply rolls, will determine whether the Deutsches Afrika Korps has any real prospect of capturing Tobruch before November. If the Axis can dodge both exchanges, then the Allies will have a real problem; because even if Rommel’s October II supply convoy is bottomed, the British player will still have to sweat the possibility of an Axis 1 to 2, 3 to 1 (33% chance of capture) attack on November I. Of course, luck will heavily influence the action during the next few game turns: after all, either an exchange or a string of Axis supply sinking’s could well halt the ‘Fall’ offensive after only one or two attacks. This development certainly would not be good news for the Axis player, but it would also not be fatal; nor, in my opinion, would it be justification for Rommel to panic and launch a desperation low-odds assault against Tobruch. Instead, for the expert Axis player, such disappointing early results would simply be a strong inducement to hunker down and wait. In this case, the ‘Fall’ offensive would be over. Any pause in Axis attacks, however, would probably be short; under most circumstances, it would only be a matter of a few game turns before the Axis ‘Winter’ offensive jumped-off.
THE ‘WINTER’ OFFENSIVE
Rommel's ‘Fall’ offensive, as a strategic option, is both simple and direct: it is really little more than an unsubtle attempt by Axis forces to muscle their way into Tobruch. Thus, it depends, for its success, on the Deutsches Afrika Korps benefiting from at least a minimal amount of good luck during the spring and summer of 1941. Unfortunately, the DAK may not end up being all that lucky: Axis supplies may dry up, British casualties during the early game may be below average, or the first assault against Tobruch may produce an expensive, offensive-stopping exchange. In short, summer and fall of 1941 may come and go without Tobruch passing out of Allied hands. In this situation, the Axis player will have no option but to look to the winter months of 1941-42 to rescue his stalled North African campaign.
November of 1941, as virtually all experienced players will attest, is the start of one of the most important phases in AFRIKA KORPS; in fact, it can oftentimes be a critical tipping point in the game. The influx of powerful Commonwealth reinforcements invariably creates both a set of brand new problems for the Desert Fox and a number of promising opportunities for our hypothetical General Wavell. Hence, Rommel — since he still wants to win — must significantly change his plan of battle and begin preparations for a ‘Winter’ offensive; that is: an offensive timed specifically to end by the spring of 1942 with the capture of Tobruch, and organized around an integrated blend of both battle and maneuver. In most cases, DAK winter operations will commence sometime in December ’41 and will probably last into February ’42. And just as was the case in the earlier ‘Fall’ offensive, the later ‘Winter’ offensive presents both advantages and disadvantages to the Desert Fox.
On the November I game turn, the British player will receive thirteen brand new combat units with a combined strength of twenty-two attack/defense factors. The arrival of two additional 4-4-7’s, two 2-2-7’s, a 2-2-6, and a second 1-1-12 reconnaissance battalion will thus — at first glance, at least — transform the Commonwealth field army into a formidable fighting force. Rommel, on the other hand, will only receive four fresh units that together total ten factors on attack and twelve factors on defense. Based on this description, the Axis reinforcements may not seem like much. However, if the major Axis units are all still in play, these newly-arriving units will increase Rommel’s stacking against Tobruch from thirty-two to thirty-four factors: a seemingly small change that will, nonetheless, allow the DAK to soak-off with one unit and still attack a 4-4-7 in Tobruch at 4 to 1. Moreover, the British strength advantage will not be as great as first appears. Assuming a typical DAK ‘worst case’ scenario: the Commonwealth will begin the November II game turn with approximately fifty-five combat factors against an Axis army totaling only forty-six factors on attack, and fifty-one on defense. However, this comparison is deceptive: somewhere between nine and twelve Allied combat factors will have to be diverted to defend Tobruch, and at least another three to four factors will need to be held in emergency reserve to replace possible one-turn fortress losses due to Axis attacks. Because Rommel will typically be able to screen the fortress with two Italian divisions, this means that the Axis field army will total forty-two attack factors against a British desert force of, at most, forty-three combat factors. Given the significant Axis advantages in stacking and mobility, these are, from Rommel’s standpoint, very acceptable odds.
The second major plus for Rommel of a ‘Winter’ offensive is supply. Beginning on the December I game turn, the convoy table becomes much friendlier to the Axis: the probability of supply sinking’s drops from 50% to 16%. Axis bad luck with supply rolls, of course, will still be a possibility, but the ‘laws of large numbers’ indicate that the Commonwealth can usually expect five to six Axis attacks between November II ’41 and March I ’42. And the DAK can do a lot of damage to British forces with that many rounds of combat.
The single greatest disadvantage of the Axis ‘Winter’ strategy is that it — at least, partially — relinquishes the initiative to the Commonwealth player. A reinforced British Eighth Army insures that Rommel, for the first time in the game, will have to take pains to prevent ‘real’ (3 to 1, or better) Allied counterattacks; he will also have to steel himself for the possibility of low-odds British gambles against his armor. This is no small concern: it should be noted that even a pair of lowly 1 to 2’s against Rommel’s only two panzer regiments still has about a 30% chance of producing at least one exchange.
The other, potentially negative feature, for the Desert Fox, of the ‘Winter’ offensive is that the British player may unexpectedly leave Rommel "swinging at air." That is: having held Tobruch into 1942, the Commonwealth player may suddenly, and without warning, decide to abandon the fortress without a major fight. Most Allied players, of course, will not even consider such a retreat until Commonwealth losses have made the defense of Tobruch untenable; but among expert players, this is not all that unusual a move. Moreover, the logic underlying such a radical Commonwealth game strategy is actually fairly compelling. First, evacuating the British armor from the fortress guarantees that the DAK will have to face an undivided and dangerous Allied army: none of the powerful armored brigades will be stuck impotently in Tobruch while a weakened Eighth Army, starved for heavy armor, has to slug it out in the desert with the cream of the Deutsches Afrika Korps. Second, it removes the possibility of an Axis desperation low-odds attack against the fortress. No small consideration because, if things have been going badly for the Axis, there is no quicker way for our make-believe Rommel to reverse the momentum of an AFRIKA KORPS game than to win a ‘big’ 1 to 1 against Tobruch. Granted, an Axis 1 to 1 attack will only succeed about 33% of the time (a big doubled exchange is usually of little help to the Desert Fox), but one chance in three might still be very attractive odds to the Axis player; particularly if the DAK is significantly behind and the game clock is running down.
Final Thoughts on the ‘Winter’ Strategy
The different possible battlefield situations that might set the scene for the start of an Axis ‘Winter’ offensive are so numerous that it is virtually impossible to offer any but very general comments about how such a campaign might develop over time. Nonetheless, a few broadly-framed observations are still possible. First, it is important for both players to remember that AFRIKA KORPS is thirty-eight, not fourteen game turns long. Far too many Axis players assume that they must establish a winning position by November ’41 or they will lose; and far too many Commonwealth commanders believe that they are pretty much ‘home free’ — at least, in game terms — if they still control their Home Base and Tobruch when November rolls around. In terms of expert play, neither of these assumptions is correct.
For the Axis player, the basic strategy for the ‘Winter’ offensive will usually follow a simple pattern: establish a Napoleonic-style ‘central position’ between Tobruch and Mersa Matruh and then alternate attacks between the garrison in the west and the Commonwealth field army in the east. This means that, in the period between November ’41 and March ’42, Rommel’s primary goal will be, as it was in the early game, both to chip away at the British player’s field army and to weaken the Tobruch garrison, bit by bit. The Allies, of course, will have more combat power during this phase of AFRIKA KORPS, and they will also have two ‘recce’ units with which to harry the DAK’s southern flank; however, limitations in British mobility and stacking will usually allow Rommel to contain the Eighth Army at comparatively little cost. When it comes to Tobruch, on the other hand, Rommel’s approach to the fortress will depend largely on the strength of the Commonwealth garrison; but British choices, in this regard, will not be easy: the stronger the units in the fortress, the weaker the Allied field army will be. Thus, east or west, Rommel should — during this phase of the contest — be able to attack the Allies on every game turn that supplies are available.
Tobruch, of course, is the prize. Ultimately, Rommel must capture the fortress; and, barring very unusual circumstances, he must do so no later than the March I ’42 game turn. If he fails, he will almost certainly lose the game. For this reason, both British stubbornness and Axis luck will play a large part in the ultimate fate of the fortress; in short, a tenacious Allied player is going to make the port a very tough nut to crack. In light of this fact, the Axis player needs to be realistic about casualties. For my own part, when facing a determined Allied player, I usually expect the DAK to lose twelve to sixteen factors at Tobruch. But if I do lose this much combat strength, I expect British losses to be heavy as well. Of course, there may be situations when Rommel simply will not have enough time to grind the port’s defenders down. In this situation, it is important for both players to understand that no matter how large the garrison in Tobruch is, it can still be assaulted. Thus, even in those cases in which the Allies have all five major units in play (four 4-4-7’s and the 3-3-7) and have built their strategy around holding Tobruch until March ’42, the fortress is actually more vulnerable than it might initially appear. This is because British defensive choices are relatively limited, while Axis offensive options abound. For example, the Deutsches Afrika Korps — assuming that it is pretty close to full strength — can, no matter what the Commonwealth player does, attack a stack of three doubled 4-4-7’s with a 33% chance of a one-turn capture of the fortress, and do so without risking a crippling twenty-four factor exchange. Such an attack, in fact, is not even that difficult to mount; it would merely require that Rommel attack two 4-4-7’s at 1 to 2 (using nine factors) with a 3 to 1 follow-up attack (using twenty-five factors). And for those Commonwealth players that think that this type of low-odds Axis gamble is far-fetched, consider this: unattractive as this set of attacks may seem, the actual odds of Rommel capturing Tobruch with no losses at all using this strategy are exactly the same as the Axis rolling an A elim followed by an exchange: 11%.
The British player, just like his Axis counterpart, will have his gaze fixed squarely on Tobruch during the winter of 1941-42. A tenacious defense of the fortress, at this stage in the game, represents the best opportunity for the Allies to inflict crippling losses on the DAK; however, such a defense, as has already been noted, comes at a price. And that price is not cheap. The stronger General Wavell chooses to make the Tobruch garrison; the weaker, of necessity, the Allied field army will be. For example, if the fortress is garrisoned with two 4-4-7’s and the 3-3-7, then one reserve 4-4-7 will probably have to be maintained at sea while a 2-2-6 is held off the map. This defensive arrangement will typically mean that the Commonwealth commander will only be able to field one 4-4-7, two 2-2-7’s, and two 2-2-6’s to serve as the backbone for the mobile component of the Eighth Army. Even with the skillful employment of the numerous Allied 1-1-6’s and the two 1-1-12’s, the British player will still have a difficult time holding a forward position anywhere near Mersa Matruh without sustaining punishing losses. This is probably the single, most difficult strategic problem confronting the Allies: if the British army remains far enough east to stay out of range of Rommel’s forces near Tobruch, then the Axis will be able to methodically reduce the fortress without fear of major interference. Moreover, just as worrisome for the Allied player is that, should Tobruch unexpectedly fall, then the fast-moving German panzers will be able to race east virtually unopposed. The fall of Tobruch in winter of 1941-42 may not signal the defeat of the Eighth Army, but the premature arrival of the Deutsches Afrika Korps in front of the El Daba-Ruweisat Line in March or April of ’42, almost certainly will.
Most British players heave a huge sigh of relief when their November reinforcements finally swarm onto the map. They shouldn’t. In reality, the real battle for North Africa is not over, it is just beginning. And from this point on in the game, the player who can best balance patience and tenacity against aggressiveness and prudent risk-taking will probably win. Thus, both players should hope for the best, but plan for the worst. Granted, luck can be a short-term factor in AFRIKA KORPS, but it is rarely the deciding factor; there are simply too many die-rolls in a game of thirty-eight turns: the ‘laws of large numbers’ indicate that luck, over time, will almost always even out. Thus, while a willingness to take a few risks may be worthwhile, any player who stakes the outcome of the entire game on a single battle or, even worse, on a single roll of the die should probably expect to be disappointed.
Most AFRIKA KORPS games will tend to follow a familiar pattern: the initial Axis encirclement and siege of Tobruch; the Axis summer raid into Egypt; the fall and winter battles for Tobruch; the Axis fighting advance east along the Coast Road; and the closing battles for El Alamein, then the Alam Halfa Ridge, and finally Alexandria. However, an AFRIKA KORPS game in which the Allied Home Base falls before the Axis capture of Tobruch, while rare, is not unheard of. Typically these game situations will take one of two general forms: the early-game, pre-March ’42 capture; and the middle-game, post-March ’42 capture. In the first instance, Alexandria usually falls because of an Allied positional error: the Commonwealth player inadvertently makes a mistake in a key unit placement which, in turn, allows the DAK to overrun its way into the Allied Home Base. In the second instance, Rommel consciously decides on an ‘Alexandria first’ strategy. This situation typically arises when the Desert Fox has enjoyed a fabulous streak of luck in the early game and — because of both very favorable attrition of the Commonwealth forces and an advanced lodgment near El Alamein — is able to bludgeon his way into Alexandria after a bitter, winter-long slog up the Coast Road.
The ‘Early’ Axis Capture of Alexandria
If the Allied Home Base falls early to the Axis, this event will usually occur sometime between late August and October of 1941. Because of this timing, the Commonwealth player will, besides losing Alexandria, in most cases also see the surviving units of his mobile desert force surrounded, or at least isolated at the same time that the Allied Home Base is captured. Of course, there is always the possibility that a very small contingent of British survivors may, along with a supply unit, be able to retreat south through the gap between the Qattara Depression and the eastern board edge, but this is exceedingly rare in these ‘early collapse’ situations. However, if the British player manages such a withdrawal, the typical Axis reaction is simple: detail a single unit (probably an Italian infantry division) to screen the gap and send the rest of the Deutsches Afrika Korps racing back towards Tobruch. In most circumstances, the DAK should not even bother to garrison Alexandria until much later in the game.
Unfortunately, because of the distance between the El Alamein Line and Tobruch, it will usually take at least three game turns to bring enough Axis combat power west to begin the final reduction of the fortress. This means, in the vast majority of cases that, by the time the DAK has marched all the way back to the British-held fortress, the November Commonwealth reinforcements will already be queuing up off-map, ready to replace the Tobruch garrison’s losses just as quickly as they occur. Thus, Rommel — as he prepares for the final battles of the game — may well find himself facing an Allied force comprised of four 4-4-7’s, one 3-3-7, two 2-2-7’s, two 2-2-6’s, and a veritable hoard of 1’s. That’s the bad news; the good news is that, because of the AFRIKA KORPS replacement schedule, Allied replacement points will not begin to accumulate until the March I game turn, so any British units eliminated during this early fighting will be out of the game for at least eleven or twelve turns. Even worse for General Wavell, the Allies will have to wait a long time — until August ’42 — before they will receive any additional ‘useful’ reinforcements. The DAK, on the other hand, should be able to do a lot of damage right from the start; once Rommel’s November reinforcements reach the battle area, he will probably be able to call on somewhere between forty and forty-four combat factors with which to power his assault. This means that even with below average Axis luck, three of the British player’s strongest units will probably make the trip to the ‘dead pile’ before Rommel has to temporarily suspend his attacks while he waits for his February reinforcements to come east. In view of these facts, plain old attrition guided by patience will be the key to ultimate Axis success. Even if Rommel is unlucky in his early attacks, as long as he preserves his strongest units — the two panzer regiments and Division Ariete — the potent combination of accumulating replacements, powerful Axis reinforcements, and the ‘laws of big numbers’ should ultimately deliver to him his final prize. It may be a long, bloody slog, but, based on my own experience over the years, Tobruch will eventually fall.
The ‘Late’ Axis Capture of Alexandria
In expert play, the ‘late’ capture of Alexandria, unlike its ‘early’ counterpart, will often produce some of the most interesting and challenging battlefield situations to arise in any AFRIKA KORPS game. The reasons for this are several. First, unlike the ‘early capture’ situation, in this instance, the Allied Home Base will almost never fall because of an error on the part of the British player. Instead, Alexandria will usually only be given up after a protracted fight, and its capitulation will be anticipated by the Commonwealth player well in advance of the actual event. Thus, once the “writing is on the wall,” an expert British player will typically send any surviving 4-4-7’s to sea while he deploys a light screen around Alexandria to tie up Axis combat power and attack supply for as long as possible. At the same time, he will retreat whichever combat units he can — along with two or three supply counters — through the gap between the map edge and the Qattara Depression and into the deep desert to the far south. The composition of this force will, of course, vary from game to game; but, in the Allied ‘best case’ scenario, it should be comprised of the 3-3-7, two 2-2-7’s, a 1-1-7, both 1-1-12’s, and any 1-1-6’s that can make it at least as far as the gap. The Axis quandary created by this move is obvious: Rommel must either waste precious time and supplies reducing the enclave through combat or, alternatively, he must leave a strong enough contingent behind to contain this highly-mobile British force. If he doesn’t, the Desert Fox risks the dire possibility of an Allied breakout, and even the recapture by the Allies of Alexandria.
It goes without saying that the best situation for the Desert Fox will be the one in which the Commonwealth troops defending the Allied Home Base have largely been annihilated in the battles immediately preceding Alexandria’s fall. In this instance — assuming Axis losses have not been too great — Rommel will be able to pursue, albeit with a later start date, the same basic offensive strategy against Tobruch that he would in the case of the ‘early’ capture of the Allied Home Base. Unfortunately, for the reasons already noted, this may well not be the position in which Rommel finds himself. Instead, should the Allies succeed in establishing an enclave in the deep desert southeast of the Qattara Depression, then Rommel’s strategic situation will be far more complicated. To begin with, a screening contingent of at least three units (ten to eleven defense factors) will have to be left behind to cover the Qattara gap. This will most likely mean that, even when Rommel’s February reinforcements link up with the DAK near Tobruch, the Axis forces available for the initial assault on the British fortress will probably total only about thirty-four to thirty-eight attack factors. This is not a lot, particularly as the first Axis attacks — because of the protracted fighting around Alexandria — will usually not be able to commence until late March or early April ’42. In addition, the British player — if he has been smart — will probably be able to muster four 4-4-7’s for Tobruch’s defense, and will now also be able to draw on a steady stream of replacement points. Again, as was the case in the first situation, a lot will depend on Rommel’s luck in the early battles; however, now the Axis will be in a contest to destroy the strong British units faster than they can be rebuilt with Allied replacement points. It will be a tough race. Nonetheless, patience and a faith in ‘statistics’ should still direct the final Axis campaign against Tobruch. The Axis player needs to always remember that, although it is a fact that the die has no memory, it is also true that combat results — considered as a set of events — will, over time, tend to regress to the statistical mean. Of course, if Rommel’s luck is particularly bad, then it may be necessary for the Desert Fox to hoard replacements until a 1 to 2 (with nine factors), 3 to 1 combination of attacks against the fortress is possible. And if all else fails, there is always the Axis player’s “last resort,” the ‘big’ 1 to 1. For this reason, it is probably a good idea for the Desert Fox to always conserve at least enough combat strength to permit a last-ditch 1 to 1 against Tobruch. There may come a point in the game when our make-believe Rommel will really have no other choice. And if that point actually comes, the perfect time for this type of Axis “Hail Mary” attack is probably on the September I ’42 game turn; by attacking just a little early, Rommel still leaves open the option of attacking again, if the result from the first battle is an A back 2.
AFRIKA KORPS, when played by experts can be a very long game; and because of this fact, a typical match will see a great many battles. However, no battle in AFRIKA KORPS is more important, in terms of the final outcome of the game, than the struggle for possession of Tobruch. Like a well-sited castle in medieval times, Tobruch sits astride the only road on the map; and until the fortress falls to the Axis, it is a thorn in the side of the Deutsches Afrika Korps, and a vitally-important western bastion for the Commonwealth. Tobruch can be temporarily bypassed, but it cannot be permanently ignored. For this reason, the inevitable battle for Tobruch, and how it is conducted, will oftentimes lay the foundation for much of the play of the later game.
In this essay, I have attempted to examine Tobruch’s influence on the overall play of AFRIKA KORPS, both from an operational and from a psychological perspective. Obviously, Tobruch must and will be defended by the Allies. But for how long and at what cost? To win, Rommel must storm and capture the fortress. How should this attack be organized and when should it be launched? The answers to these different AFRIKA KORPS questions may, and usually will, vary from game to game; but how each player chooses to answer them, in more cases than not, will ultimately determine who will win and who will lose.
It is hard to believe, but Charles Robert’s classic design, AFRIKA KORPS, is now over half a century old. Despite its age, however, it is still one of my all-time favorite games. I say this even while recognizing the game’s many flaws: the inaccurate Orders of Battle; the ‘frou-frou’ pink and ‘baby’ blue counters; the absence of minefields or airpower; and even the odd terrain omissions, and the often curious spelling of place names on the map board. None of that really matters; in my opinion, it is still a great game. Nowadays, many players dismiss AFRIKA KORPS as being a poor simulation (which is probably true) and being unbalanced (which it is not). However, while I would be the first to admit that I have played simulations with far more detail and historical accuracy than AFRIKA KORPS (although I think that Roberts got most of the important things right), I have virtually never encountered really skillful play in any of those other titles. And the prospect of encountering expert play, in the end, is probably this game’s greatest appeal: a lot of us have been battling over the narrow yellow map board for a long time, and there are still a large number of very good (if graying) AFRIKA KORPS players around. For this reason alone, I strongly recommend that anyone who has never played the game give it a try. And if, after a few matches, you still think that it is too simple, or hopelessly unbalanced, then seek out an experienced online opponent, or better still, pack up a copy and head to the next board game convention. I suspect that you just might be in for quite a surprise.
For additional historical background on this WWII subject, please see my Book Review blog post on this title: