The Meat Grinder – Part 2

Where to Start

As with all immersion games and role playing games, you begin with your character. Now, being of the gentler sex (ha!), to realistically play a woman in a combat role during WWII, my choices are to play a partisan or resistance fighter in an occupied area, or a soldier of the Soviet army. I do lean to the left, so I have no problem playing a “Bolshevik Gun Moll.”

Once you have this vague idea of what you want your character to be, you need to do a little reading or research if you don’t know much about the period. As I stated last week, I became intrigued with the Rzhev Meat Grinder – it was probably Alexander Tvardovsky’s poem that sealed the deal, “I Was Killed Near Rzhev.”

I was killed near Rzhev
In a nameless bog,
In fifth company,
On the Left flank,
In a cruel air raid

Alexander Tvardovsky
Photo: the German newspaper Völkischer Beobachter.

I watched some documentaries, read some on-line articles, bought a couple of books and discovered that the basic maneuver unit of the Soviet army in 1941-1942 wasn’t the squad, but the platoon. NUTS! from Two Hour Wargames is basically squad oriented since the original core rules were for 1944-1945, but it can work with a platoon. For my games, patrol missions will be played using a single squad, while the attack and defend missions will be played using the platoon. Playing anything larger than a platoon is probably best played using the NUTS! Big Battles rules.

So my character is going to command a platoon, which means she is an officer and a gentlelady. The next question to resolve is which platoon out of the tens of thousands in the Soviet army will she command? At this point, there is nothing wrong with selecting a fictional unit, but with a little research you can find one that will match what you need.

The armies of the combatants in WWII were so large they had groups of armies called, well, Army Groups, which were called “Fronts” in the Soviet army. There were two Soviet Fronts and one German Army Group contesting the Rzhev salient. From my reading, I knew I wanted to place my character in the 39th Army of the Kalinin Front. I wanted her to command a rifle platoon, so after finding an organization table of the 39th Army, I picked the 3rd Rifle Platoon of the 3rd Rifle Company of the 3rd Rifle Battalion of the 1174th Rifle Regiment of the 348th Rifle Division of the 39th Army of the Kalinin Front – whew, that’s a mouthful!

Now that I have a character and know what size of group she will lead, the easy part of this project is to collect enough miniatures to start playing with. I say it’s the easy part, because building terrain and designing the campaign encounters are going to be a bit harder for me. But before talking about miniatures, let’s talk some about how war was fought on the Eastern Front.

Cauldrons and Salients

If like me and you are new to reading World War II military history, you will come across a lot of new words, or familiar words used in a different way. The words “cauldron” and “salient” pop up a lot when reading about the Rzhev operations, indeed, they occur a lot when reading about the Eastern Front in general.

To defeat an enemy, you must either destroy the enemy outright or destroy his or her will to fight. Throughout World War II this was commonly done by a series of pincer movements encircling enemy forces. This created “pockets” that could be by-passed or destroyed. If the enemy forces put up a fierce fight, then that pocket was usually called a “cauldron” – denoting the intense fighting was like a boiling cauldron with a lid on building up steam pressure.

A “salient” is an angle that points outward – it is another name for a “bulge”. The Rzhev salient was a thorn in the Soviet’s side, it was only 150 kilometers from Moscow, too close for the Soviet leader’s comfort. The Soviet high command committed large numbers of resources to push the Germans further away from their capitol.

The Soviet roads were few and only one major highway was paved. This meant resupply of the German forces was done mostly by rail. The area around Rzhev had several major rail junctions. This made the salient important to the Germans. In addition, the German high command had not given up on another try at taking Moscow at some point and Rzhev would be an important staging area.

The importance of the area was such that it was heavily fortified, so much so that much of the fighting devolved into a type of trench warfare reminiscent of WWI. Army Group Center had issued orders to turn every stone building and heavily timbered building into fortifications – bunkers.

How Many Miniatures Are Needed?

There is of course, a difference between a unit’s strength on paper and the actual strength of the unit. At the beginning of 1941, the paper strength of a Soviet rifle squad was 12 members. By the start of 1942, the paper strength of a rifle squad had been reduced to 11 members*. Over the course of the war, both the squad size and number of squads in a rifle platoon would change several times.

The Soviet rifle squad at the end of 1941 & early 1942 on paper consisted of a squad leader, machine gunner, assistant machine gunner, messenger, observer and six riflemen – in two of the 4 infantry squads of a platoon, one of the riflemen would be a sniper.

On the German side, the size of a rifle squad on paper remained consistent throughout the war at 10 members. However, interviewed German veterans could never remember a squad containing 10 soldiers – they all recalled that when their squads were at full strength, there were 9 members.

The German infantry squad on paper consisted of a squad leader, machine gunner, 2 assistant machine gunners and 6 riflemen.

* You should be aware that the NUTS! rule set lists the Soviet rifle squad at 7 members – the 1945 strength. The Clash of Titans supplement and the draft campaign book does make reference of the changing squad size and composition over the course of the war from 1941 through 1945.

The Soviet rifle platoon at the beginning of 1942 isn’t as bland as you think it would be. It was commanded by either an officer, a junior officer or a senior NCO. It had a small command squad consisting of the commander, a senior NCO and a runner. The core of the platoon was 4 rifle squads, each commanded by a NCO, each with a machine gun and two of the squads had snipers. The surprise is that the rifle platoon also had a mortar section consisting of an NCO and three mortar crewmen. The NCOs & observers or each squad were armed with either submachine guns or semi-automatic rifles. On paper, that’s a total of 51 soldiers to a platoon.

Depending on the mission, a rifle platoon could have additional company level assets assigned to it, most often, a medic, and sometimes a heavy machine gun section. Later in 1942, the snipers would be taken out of the platoons and become company level assets and assigned where needed.

What Figures are Needed to Start?

To begin with, you can start with a single squad of 5 to 11 figures if you are playing Soviets or 5 to 10 figures if playing Germans.

Most games will not have more than 3 PEFs resolved on the table at any one time – there can be exceptions! So to start, you could get by with just 15 to 30 enemy figures.

An economical way to start in 28mm is with plastic figures from Warlord Games. The box sets usually have 30 figures, enough to build a platoon. Just try to avoid buying them from Warlord unless they are running a sale. Why do I say that? Well, Warlord Games in 28mm and Battlefront in 15mm are the Games Workshop of WWII miniatures when it comes to pricing. For example, if I were to purchase a box of Blitzkrieg German Infantry directly from Warlord, it would cost me $50.00. If I bought that same box from an independent vendor, I would pay $36.00 to $45.00.

Hobby Tip!

If you need a painting guide to help in painting your miniatures, check out these resources on the Artizan Designs’ WWII page:

WWII Painting & Camo Guides

Next Time

Next week, I will tackle how to design my campaign and its encounters. The 15 months of fighting in the Rzhev salient saw six major operations – three by each side. I hope to create a manageable campaign for my games.

Until next time, your comments and suggestions are certainly welcome, especially as I’m just beginning this period. So let me pop out of my hidey-hole & wave goodbye:

2 thoughts on “The Meat Grinder – Part 2

  1. You might want to look at Perry WWII figures. Their platoon size box is 20 GBP plus 25% for shipping and an additional 6 GBP for “last mile cost.” That works out to $38.43 tonight. My most recent order arrived last week, and took 14 days from England. I don’t have any Warlord figures to provide a size comparison with Perry, My Perry WWII and colonial figures are the same height as my Bad Squiddo ATS figures, though a little slimmer.

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