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Subject: Smolensk – There’s a long, long trail a winding rss

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Andrew Hobley
United Kingdom
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The second game of my new acquisition was the Approach to Battle scenario for Smolensk. In Day of Battle we start with the forces ready for the fight, Approach allows us to see how they got there - or to get them somewhere else if we think we can do better than the historical generals. The scenario runs for two full days, 16 and 17 August.

The strategic background is that the Russians had planned to launch an offensive towards Vitebisk; Napoleon realised he could swing round their left and cut them off from Moscow at Smolensk. In what David Chandler describes as ‘one of Napoleon’s masterpieces’ 200,000 troops swung south, crossed the Dnieper and prepared to fall on the Russian rear. The heroic retreat of General Neveroski’s 27th Division of VIII Corps to Murat’s cavalry from Krasnoe (off map to the west) to near Smolensk prevented the French getting to the City first. The Russians realised their peril and rather late Bagration’s 2nd and Barclay’s 1st Armies headed back to Smolensk.

So we (or rather I as this was solitaire) start before dawn on 16 August. Bagration with VIII Corps, IV Cavalry and Karpov’s Cossacks are marching north of the Dnepr. Raevsky’s VII Corps and Neveroski’s 27th Division cover the City. Barclay’s 1st Army is off map to the north. South of the river Murat with I and II Cavalry Corp and Ney with III Corps are also headed towards the City, with Napoleon, the II and Guard cavalry and 2/I Corps in the rear. As before the Dnepr is impassable, except at the bridges at Smolensk and Borovaya, and the fords, which the French don’t know about until Russians cross them or their scouts find them with the play of a card.

The set up.

The day began with the French I Cavalry attacking Neveroski’s cavalry and at the cost of Jacquinot’s brigade riding them down. As the French cavalry began to probe round the south of the City Raevsky pulled his units back into the City. Some of Neveroski’s units did not move fast enough and were eliminated by the marauding French cavalry.

North of the River Bagration’s men marched for the City, shadowed by Ney’s Corp on the main road to the south. At 8 am VIII Corps reached the bridge across the River at Borovaya. Bagration ordered the Corps cavalry south of the River, and began concentrating north of the River as the marching infantry units came up. Ney, concerned that if he continued towards Smolensk he would be attacked in the flank and rear, stopped his march and began to concentrate his Corps around Novy Dvor. One of Bagration’s staff must have whispered ‘Friedland’ to the General, as the rest of VIII Corp showed no sign of crossing to join the cavalry. Around noon seeing, the French Guard cavalry trotting towards, them the Russian cavalry re-crossed the bridge and burnt it.

Ney paralysed by the Russian threat.

To the north-west at the ford over the River at Katyn’ II Cavalry decided not to cross, and shadowed the Russian march to the south. Colbert’s Guard Light cavalry stayed to guard the ford; seeing they were only opposed by Cossacks they attacked. In a fierce fight both sides took heavy losses, but in the end the Cossacks fell back to the Katyn’ bridge. Here they stayed for some time, Colbert’s attempts to take the bridge were repulsed. Next day the Cossacks retired, pursued slowly by the French.

Back to the east Ney resumed his march to Smolensk, while 2/I Corps kept watch on Bagration’s men. By now Barclay and 1 Army had arrived at Smolensk and Raevsky’s VII Corps was replaced a City garrison by Ostermans’s IV Corps, reinforced with men of III Corps. As Barclay and Bagration cannot command units of the other’s army it made sense to garrison the City with units of the Army which was just to the north, rather than one several versts to the west. As night fell Russian peasants directed approaching French reinforcements the wrong way, so delaying them by several hours.

Daybreak on 17 August saw everyone hurrying towards the City.

Marching to the City - that's I Corps on the road in the foreground and middle ground !

II and IV Corps garrisoned Smolensk, V and VI were arriving from the north and II and II Cavalry were en route. As a bonus Wittgenstein’s 1st Russian Corps was arriving. 2nd Army now sat along the northern bank of the Dnepr from the Borovaya Bridge to the City. The Russians planned to hold the City as long as they could and prevent the French crossing to the north of the River.

Napoleon had two cavalry Corp and III Corps outside the City with the Poles of V Corps hastening up and I Corps far in the rear. He had decided against trying to force a crossing at Borovaya as the enemy were too strong, and throwing a pontoon bridge across the River would now be impossible in view of the numbers of Russians on the north bank. When the Poles were ready he would attack the City, with I Corps ordered to assemble to the east.

The French ready to attack.

At 8am the French attacked - the Poles at the Krasnoe Gate, jointly with III Corps the Korolevsky bastion, the rest of III Corps the Molokhovskiye gate and the Württemburg Division of III Corps the Nikolski Gate. Polish artillery support set parts of the St Petersburg suburb across the River on fire, but the assault on the City itself made little headway as units from both sides exhausted themselves. At 9am III Corps units penetrated into the Molokhovskiye Gate, but attempts to push further into the City saw then thrown out again [I had learnt from experience that Russian counter-attacks in Smolensk can result in an attacker retreat, so the Russians held fast and the French instead got an AR and ejected themselves!]. But at 11:30 the Poles broke through the Krasnoe Gate and by noon had taken the southern part of the Smolensk bridge. Cut off from retreat the defenders still made the French fight for every building and it was not until just before 4pm the French had secured the City. III Corps had two brigades reduced, but V Corps had five brigades damaged and was much weakened.

The City has fallen.

During the French assault the long, long, column of I Corps had been winding past the City to Novosel’tsy; from the south the Guard had arrived and assembled at Zagorye and somewhat suspiciously Junot and VIII Corps and the French cavalry were heading towards the Dnepr far upstream from Smolensk. Suspecting a move the cross the River as the City began to fall the Russian Armies started to move east, destroying the Smolensk bridge.

Just as the Poles cleared the City the French crossed the fords to the east and downstream; scouts having found them some hours earlier. I Corps initial attack at Sheyn Ostrog was repulsed, a second attack made better progress and by 6:30pm a decent bridgehead had been opened up, cutting the Moscow Road and the Russian retreat. But the Russian II and V Corps counterattacked, destroying one French division, another was saved by artillery covering its retreat from across the River. By nightfall I Corps had pulled back.

At Prudyschevo Murat led the cavalry over the ford, followed by Junot's VIII Corps and Napoleon. Palen’s III Cavalry had arrived at Latoshino and was managing to hold back the French. But most of the Russian Army was still around Smolensk, or diverting along tracks to avoid the I Corps attack across the ford. Was the manoeuvre sur les derrières about to succeed? Well as the Approach to Battle scenario ends then we shall never know!

Game end.

Counting the bodies the French lost 15 SP, the Russians 40. Adding in other VPs the final result was French 17, Russians 12 – a French Marginal Victory.

So once again fun was had with some difficult decisions to be made for both sides. It has made me want to try the four day Smolensk campaign game, which I think will make all clear – can the Russians hold the French south of the River; can the French pin the Russians and get to their east without having their own supply line cut?

An useful lesson from this game was using columns in road mode order – where each unit takes up two road hexes, moves twice as fast and cannot stack. At one stage I and V Corps stretched almost from Smolensk to the map edge. You cannot cross a column in road mode, so I Corps made a barrier between the French attacking Smolensk and the units to the south. Lessons – have breaks in your column; road mode is also good for faster movement along trails (bridges and slopes no longer cost 1MP); but if you get the troops from A to B fast you then spend time assembling them into an attacking force.

The other big mystery remains – why in game term should the Russians defend Smolensk? The French will eventually take the City, you will lose more SP than they will, the VP hex is north of the River and trying to assault across a destroyed bridge is a real nightmare (opponents doubled, two column shift on CTR to left and a DR result needs a successful initiative roll to advance). I’ve taken this up with Kevin Zucker on the COMSIM Forum.

Now on to the Russian retreat at Valutino. Only one map this time.

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