Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Tannenberg, a no hope battle for the Russians

On my visit to London two weeks ago I was privileged to play with a group of veteran wargamers that Nick occassionally hangs out with. I got to play in a combination of a map campaign/miniatures tabletop battle devised by Ian Drury, who had interposed the scenario of the battle of Tannenberg in September 1914 over a set of early WWI miniature rules designed by Richard Brooks.

Some of you might be familiar with the (2nd) battle of Tannenberg in 1914. The 1st battle of Tannenberg was an ignominous defeat of the Teutonic Order at the hands of the Polish and Lithuanian nobility in 1410. In 1914 the Germans beat an invading Russian army in the same general area, but the mention of Tannenberg therefor had a much wider cultural significance for them. They had defeated the barbarian invaders.

As all corps were some distance apart at the outset and their positions not exactly known, we played the first few turns on the strategic map. When enemy troops were spotted, the action moved to the tables.

A Russian strategic map, 2 km to each square.
The white flags are corps HQs, green: infantry brigades
yellow and red: artillery, blue: spotted enemy formations
One of the excellent elements of the scenario was the flawless connection between map game and tabletop. Since the grids on the map were the same as on the table, there was no discussion about off map movement rates and appearances on table. This is certainly something I will remember for future map games.

The map game was played with OP14, an abstracted miniatures rule set, designed by Richard Brooks. Command was based on army corps, with brigades as the smallest units. A brigade effectively had four formation options, akin to Volley & Bayonet: march, deployed, defensive and basic field works. Basic field works had a chance of transforming into primitive trenches overnight.

Turns consituted one and a half ours of times and squares a square km. With a movement rate of 1 square per turn for deployed brigades and 2 squares for march formations. Units in deployed formation had an added chance of delay.

Our corps moving into a defensive position on day 1. 
Germans already dug in north of Tannenberg 

This was a tricky bit. Corps initiative was determined by a deck of cards. Low number had higher initiative, but the colour was important as well. All Russian corps were immobilised on spades, while brigades outside command radius were immobilised on diamonds. Any troops in rough terrain or crossing obstacles were delayed on clubs.

You can imagine the hardships Russian troops would suffer outside command range and in rough terrain. I never dared to try.

In combat the formation determined the amount of dice rolled by defenders, while the to hit level was determined by the amount of figures (4 per brigade, 2 or more for artillery). To make things interesting, troop quality determined what kind of dice you rolled, with elite troops rolling D6 and Landwehr rolling D10.

The abstractions worked really well at this level of command. There might even have been less, because matters of flanks in this historical period and tactical level might be ignored.

Now the Tannenberg scenario is obviously heavily skewed to the Germans. Not only do they have the knowledge of the terrain with added intelligence from airplanes and dirigibles, they also held the initiative and choice of the Schwerpunkt against a scattered opposition. Add to this the Russian immobilisation and lack of centralised command and the Russians were up for a serious thrashing.

Only thanks to hindsight the Russian commanders were able to limit the scale of disaster. Because we knew what was coming, we didn't attack deeper into the trap like the Russians did historically.

Alan and me had joint command of a Russian corps near the village of Tannenberg, with Alan doing communications and overall control and me doing the map dispositions. By the end of day one we had managed to put ourselves in a strong position, with dug in infantry supported by artillery and flanks based upon natural obstacles.

But there is a psychological difficulty to the defense that we could not surmount. As the Germans advanced on us on the second day, Alan decided that we should pull back in the light of overwhelming forces. While I agreed on the latter point, I was more worried about being outflanked, because I felt we could do a lot of damage in our defensive positions.

Our corps by the end of day 2, having got away from the Landwehr
This proved correct in hindsight as we were able to beat of a lot of German attacks when we pulled back from our position (there was a small amount of luck involved as well, but Napoleon nailed the point about lucky generals). Nevertheless we lost about half our command due to delayed movement and bottlenecks. Staying put might have ruined our corps, but done much more damage to our opponnents.

Anyway, falling back is a very difficult manoeuvre, especially when you have delays at crucial moments and rescuing half our corps was better than I had expected.

Overview of the battlefield by the end of day 2

There was also a nice system for combat exhaustion of corps. Once a unit received 25% losses, it drew a card from the deck. Any losses afterward required the draw of another card. If the value of this card was higher than those already drawn, the corps would be exhausted and unfit for offensive actions.

What I especially liked was to play two days of action in an afternoon with a good strategic feel. The only problem with the limited information was that as soon as units were put on the table, the were visible also for units far away. It might be advisable to have each corps fight its own battle on its own table, oblivious of what happened elsewhere.

Ian explaining afterwards what had happened off map. More bad news

Many thanks to Ian for putting this game on and to Richard for the ruleset. Ian's exlanation of what happened off map was very good in reminding us that even had we beaten off the Germans on our flank, other troops would have gotten into our rear and our fate was pretty much sealed. Made me feel much better about my crappy handling of the troops.


  1. It was an excellent game, and I did same as you. I tried to deploy onto a strong position with a town ontop of a hill with woods in front, but before I got into position I could see the position was going to be outflanked before I could even get into it. So I decided to withdraw. This left me with a difficult withdrawl, I managed to hit back a couple of times, but I was never balanced and never able to quite sort things out.

    Maybe I should have stayed and fought it out, at least making the enemy take casualties as the assaulted me in good positions.

    As it was I was hoping to Roger's Corps somewhere behind and to the right of me, and then link to your position, but this never really happened.

    I liked the scale of the game, but agree it would be much better if I could fight it with less knowledge of my enemy and my other corps commanders.

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  3. That was a silly mistake to make. Of course it's 1410¡ D'oh!


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