Design Notes (from John Kisner)
The Destruction of Army Group Center was an S&T issue game from my first year as a subscriber. My opinion of the East Front in the summer of ’44 — or at least of Operation Bagration, the Soviet offensive that knocked the Germans out of Byelorussia — was quickly formed: too unbalanced to be interesting to game. Given this lesson from my formative gaming years, that I would design a game on what could be called The Destruction of Army Group North is nothing short of amazing.
Bagration’s central objective was Minsk, a city far south of our map, and the northern arm of this massive attack came crashing through Vitebsk. 1st Baltic Front was tasked with protecting the exposed right flank of the operation, with a course pointed southwest toward Kaunas. The initial rupture in the defensive line between Vitebsk and Polotsk was followed by a textbook “deep operation” westward, and this quickly resulted in a forty-mile separation —what the Germans called “the Baltic Gap” — between Center and North. Complicating the German position was the fact that Army Group North was pinned in place by a combination of holding attacks by 2nd and 3rd Baltic Fronts and Hitler’s disinclination to allow any voluntary retreats. It would be asked to hold the current line while simultaneously stretching its right flank to re-establish contact with Center.
As the Soviet penetration developed during the last week of June, the commander of 1st Baltic Front, I.K. Bagramyan, became reluctant to veer away from his right flank protection, 2nd Baltic Front, and also recognized the seeds had been sown for the destruction of Army Group North. By this point in the war, Soviet command was sufficiently nimble to revise the initial plan on the fly: Bagramyan’s axis of advance was tilted to run due west and he would attempt the envelopment of an entire German army group and the recapture of the Baltic States.
It took about a week for Operation Bagration to wreck Army Group Center. After a month, Soviet spearheads were all the way to the outskirts of Warsaw. The pacing of events in the Baltics is superficially quite similar, in that by July’s end 3rd Guards Mech Corps had reached Tukums and isolated Army Group North. There were crucial differences: North had given ground, but was not yet defeated, and after its rapid 300-mile advance 1st Baltic Front was tired, spread thin, and vulnerable. Enter Grossdeutchland and five German panzer divisions, a familiar plot twist in the long-running East Front drama. But the August counterattack would meet stalemate instead of glory, and by summer’s end Army Group North was pushed into the Courland Pocket.
Why did this counterattack fail? Chances for success actually looked pretty good on paper, even with the panzers nowhere near full strength, because the Soviets didn’t have a local superiority in tanks when Operation Doppelkopf began. Two factors stand out: the panzers no longer had a decisive performance advantage and were also a bit late onto the field. By mid-August Bagramyan was prepared for the blow; two weeks earlier, this would not have been the case. Without question, better luck and timing would have allowed the counterattack to recover more ground and grind more of the enemy to dust, but in the long run the Germans didn’t have enough of a tactical edge to make up for the overall inferiority in numbers. What they could still do is pounce on Soviet mistakes — for instance, slam into a tank or rifle corps that’s on the move — and use the panzer threat to bring the Soviet spearheads to bay.
The Baltic Campaign of ’44 contains all the elements that make a game worth playing. This was a very mobile battle with both sides taking a turn on the offensive, and these are the situations in which OCS really shines. Historically, the Soviets would prevail in the Baltics, but I don’t think it was preordained. There is also fertile ground for alternate histories to take root, such as “what if Army Group North had retained its one panzer division as a strategic reserve?” The high command guessed wrong when it kept so many panzer divisions near the old Hube’s Pocket battleground in anticipation of the summer battle, and it is not beyond the pale to imagine a more balanced distribution of reserves leading to something short of “destruction of Army Group Center.”
No plausible what-if would have allowed Germany to turn the tables and retake the strategic initiative in 1944, but Army Group North was in a decent position to meet certain modest goals, with survival topping the list. Hitler complicated this mission, since he also wanted North to hang onto the Baltic coast to ensure certain resources flowed into German factories and well-trained submarine crews flowed out to the Atlantic. For that reason, voices calling for a retreat to the south bank of the Daugava River were silenced. However much sense it made to shorten the line (and to take steps to avoid getting trapped outside Germany), there was no way to fit that into a war-winning strategy (however far-fetched such strategies may have become).
Baltic Gap also grew from a simple conceit: that the OCS model is so inherently interesting that virtually any WWII-era campaign can be turned into a good game. Hans Mielants designed an OCS game on this subject in 1992 that collected a decade of dust because no one was motivated to develop his submission. Fresh off a rewarding experience testing Rod Miller’s excellent Korea game before it was released, I decided to give Hans’ game a long look. After a few months of background reading, I signed on to create a revised version of the project.
There are no books (at least in English) devoted to this campaign, but chapters can be found in several good sources. Erickson’s Road to Berlin, Glantz’s Clash of Titans, and Ziemke’s Stalingrad to Berlin are the best of the general accounts. Newton’s Retreat From Leningrad has a tighter focus, and while it contains a nugget here and there, it’s mostly just a disconnected mess of German post-war debriefings that really need better annotation. Best of the bunch is Crumbling Empire, by Samuel Mitcham. He only covers the action from the German perspective, but the chapter on this campaign made me realize that there really was a game to be made.
It was frustrating while I was doing research, but I must say the lack of narrative material (at least in terms of accessible English-language sources) made my first solo game quite a revelation. We all enjoy using games to teach us about a campaign, but to me it was fascinating to realize that OCS was teaching lessons that I had not consciously “designed” into the game. I hope the rest of you experience a similar thrill of discovery.
Baltic Gap was sharpened over the course of three years of development. Especially valuable were some intense games at conventions, where we were able to string together several long days. Larry & Monte here in Iowa, and Dave’s group in Ohio, are deserving of special thanks for helping with the fine-tuning. The playtest games revealed a situation with lots of turmoil and excitement. The action surrounding German attempts to fight their way out of encirclements seemed especially intense — for example, I know that I’ll never forget the convention action near “Veerman’s bridge” (E41.14). This is what makes replays of the campaign so very rewarding to both sides. Army Group North’s dramatic ending at Courland Pocket turned out to be a great deal more than merely the story of its destruction.
Special Ops Article List:
- Baltic Gap
- The Gamer's Operational Combat Series