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ETO Envelopment and Destruction

ETO Envelopment and Destruction

Posted by Jeff Nyquist on Oct 18th 2018

ETO Envelopment and Destruction

How to Trap Enemy Armies in “Pockets”

by Jeff Nyquist

When playing the Axis in Thunder in the East, fair attrition is not what you want. You must seek decisive battles to destroy large numbers of encircled Soviet units. If you perform this task well enough, and often enough, the Soviets will be distracted rushing reinforcements to the sectors you have threatened and thus will have a difficult time raising strong sectors of their line to threaten you with. Compound that with the quick rate that Soviet morale plummets when their 1-step Corps units are removed from the map or their 2-step Raised Armies are reduced to 1-step Corps units, and the axiom “The best way to destroy Soviets is to destroy Soviets” really rings true.

The Math of War

To achieve a highly-favorable casualty ratio (e.g., 3 to 6 Soviet steps lost for each Axis step lost) in Thunder in the East, the Axis must employ envelopment tactics, trapping Soviet forces (especially those with only Leg Movement capabilities) in pockets where they have little hope of escape and the effects of Isolation attrition only makes your job easier.

This is the path to a 1941, or more likely a 1942, victory for the Axis side in Russia.


Wily Soviet players, however, will fight to block these German armored spearheads. They will defend in depth, prepare powerful reserves and well-timed counter-attacks and kick back like a mule at every Axis thrust they can. These Soviet players know when to fall back, when and where to stand, and especially when and where to counterattack (as those counterattacks are particularly helpful to the Soviets if they can help their trapped forces and particularly harmful to the Axis should they attrition advancing mobile units).

However, despite every feat the Soviet player will use (and their card deck greatly supplements the “tricks up their sleeve” aspect when trying to pin the Red Army down and wipe it out), the Axis player must nonetheless persevere in a campaign of serial envelopments and inflict withering, unrecoverable attrition on the Red Army.

Cannae or Can’t I?

We find the textbook example of a classic envelopment operation in the Battle of Cannae, Hannibal’s masterstroke on the battlefield.

The spring of 216 B.C. was a delicate point in the Second Punic War; after stunning losses to Hannibal, the Roman dictator Quintus Fabius (later Maximus), stalled the Carthaginians rampaging up and down Italy by using delaying tactics. But the people of Rome grew tired of no longer suffering disasters inflicted by Hannibal and sought instead to finally defeat him.

They elected hot-headed Roman Consul Varro and more level-headed Consul Paullus and, together with their two Roman consular armies, met Hannibal of Carthage at a Roman supply depot he recently captured at Cannae. Possessing superior infantry in quantity and quality, Varro (it was his day to command the combined Roman armies) attacked the Carthaginian center. As the middle of the Carthaginian line slowly gave way, Varro’s line began to take the shape of a semi-circle, with his flanks bent back. In essence, Varro was half-pocketing his own troops. When Hannibal’s cavalry and strongest infantry formations were at last unleashed to attack Varro’s flanks, the semi-circle became a full circle and both consular armies were “pocketed.”

There was no escape for the Romans at Cannae because an encircled army is generally incapable of rescuing itself. Approximately 60,000 Romans were cut down by Hannibal’s troops that day. But Rome still won the Second Punic War despite these terrible losses. Such was the Roman advantage in numbers. In this we find a resemblance between the Second Punic War and the Soviet-German War of 1941-45. Like the Romans, the Soviets won despite the loss of millions of soldiers in encirclements thanks to their huge overall advantage in numbers.

The Axis as Carthaginians

The Germans, indeed, trained to fight in a manner reminiscent of Hannibal. It is not by chance that Gen. Heinz Guderian once referred to his panzer forces as the motorized equivalent of Hannibal’s cavalry. The mobility and strike power of panzers, assisted by close air support, constantly broke through the flanks of Soviet Armies and Army Groups.

And while there has been much talk among historians of “blitzkrieg” tactics, what did these amount to? In essence, the blitzkrieg usually relied on enveloping the enemy, putting them in a pocket (der kessel) and then mopping up the trapped enemy forces. As he advanced on Tobruk in 1941, General Irwin Rommel wrote, “A new Cannae is being prepared.”

Recognizing Envelopment Opportunities

There are two main ways to pocket an enemy army: First, there is envelopment by flanking from one direction to pin the enemy against the sea or some other natural obstacle (think of the Germans trapping the Allied forces in Belgium in 1940). Second, there is a double envelopment flanking the enemy on two sides simultaneously – a more difficult operation to attempt, but without a natural anchor to pin the enemy against it is the only sure way to trap them.

How do you, as a strategy gamer, spot an opportunity for envelopment?

First, you must evaluate the enemy’s troop dispositions in terms of distinct groupings. No continuous line is equal in all its parts. Typically, some sections of the line are thin while others enjoy stronger troop concentrations. It is inevitable that a long front has weak points. And it is at those weak points where envelopments are best attempted.

Even more obvious are positions where the enemy line bulges out into your own with their heavy units concentrated in the middle of the “bulge.” This allows you to find some weakness in the sides and shoulders of that salient and close from both directions (as the Soviets performed at Operation Uranus).

To gain the element of operational surprise, it is advantageous to place some Panzer Corps in reserve. Although it is difficult to spare them from the line, keeping strong forces in reserve is still an important thing to do. And remain mindful of the following:

  • Keep the enemy guessing as to the time and place of your next major offensive.
  • Try not to signal your intentions in advance; if you can’t get mobile forces safely into your reserve, have some on usable rail lines so you can shift them quickly (to the enemy's consternation).
  • Get to know your opponent’s style of play. How many reserves does he have? Where has he placed his headquarters? Can these HQs be knocked out, isolated, or surrounded?

Springing the Trap

A strong envelopment attack should attempt to cut the enemy HQ’s rail line of communication which, in turn, will force it to abandon its position and spend time relocating. This, in turn, usually cripples the opponent’s ability to react to that encirclement. It is hard for your opponent to kick back like a mule when their HQs that provide Attack Support have just been evacuated to the rear!

Study the opponent’s front line carefully. The opportunities are there, somewhere, just waiting for you to find them. If you cannot find accessible opportunities (weaknesses in your opponent’s line), then you must try to create some by applying pressure to key sections, and at key hexes, of the line. There is always a "key hex" Battle somewhere!

The famous British military theorist, B.H. Liddell Hart, posited eight essential axioms of military strategy:

(1) Adjust your ends to your means.

(2) Keep your object always in mind.

(3) Choose the line of least expectation.

(4) Exploit the line of least resistance.

(5) Take the line of operation which offers alternative objectives.

(6) Ensure that your plan is flexible and adaptable

(7) Do not throw your weight into a strike while your opponent is on guard.

(8) Do not renew an attack along the same line (or in the same form) once it has failed.

In light of this, one very responsible question you might ask is: Does my opponent have to be an idiot to suffer encirclement?

General George Patton wrote, “To have a Cannae, you must have a Varro.” That is not necessarily true. You can often encircle any enemy force if you take that risk and roll a favorable string of Battle results. Given the advantages accruing to the Axis at the start of Operation Barbarossa, it would be a miracle if the Germans failed to encircle Soviet armies.

Putting the Boot on the Other Foot

There is another point to make here: The danger of encirclement is not something that only the Soviet player has to worry about. A cunning Soviet player can also make encirclements of the Axis’ forces – even in the autumn of 1941. The Soviet can replicate the double envelopment of German 6th Army at Stalingrad in game play if they should ever find the opportunity.

When the Soviets confronted this mess at the start of their September II 1941 turn, things looked grim. But the wily Soviet players knew that envelopment maneuvers can work both ways!

Taking a risk and making a few decent Battle die rolls, on their September III turn the Soviets completely blunted the Blitz with a Cannae-like counteroffensive. Compounding the problem for the Axis, the next turn was Mud weather (units can only move 1 hex!), which made a counterattack to relive the pocket impossible to assemble and so the trapped German units soon suffered from Isolation attrition!

Encirclement Techniques

Here are some axioms to help your build better encirclements while campaigning across the ETO maps:

(1) It is generally better to cut your opponent’s supply line closer to his supply source; hugging a closed pocket too tightly from behind affords them a better chance to escape.

(2) Keep your Ju-87s available (even if you must spend Fuel to do so) to protect your armored spearheads. Defense Air Support can really blunt a Soviet counterattack.

(3) Capture towns, displace headquarters, and cut rail lines near the encircled force. In this way, you markedly delay the arrival of reserves and reinforcements trying to relieve that pocket.

(4) When you are attempting to flank, be sure to place all nearby Soviet Leg Infantry units in your units’ Zones of Control so they cannot maneuver or coordinate with counterattacking reserves. Hold the Soviets by their belt buckles and restrict their Special Movement Phase maneuvers as much as possible.

That is how the Axis player prospers and advances their campaign agendas.

Frank Chadwick’s ETO is a game system designed to simulate battles of encirclement, and it does so very well. Games in this series will see campaigns unfold that punish those who play like Varro and reward those who play like Hannibal.

The ETO Information Hub (click here)