Untold Stories: Close Combat: Cross of Iron

By: Zach Zimmerman, Contributing Writer

The Wargame genre is a subset of strategy (typically real time or turn-based) games that have usually flown under the radar for the majority of gamers. But for those veterans of the genre, Close Combat is held in high regard, particularly Atomic Games’ first five releases in the mid-to-late 1990s.  

Close Combat III: The Russian Front (and now again in an updated release of Close Combat: Cross of Iron in 2007), is broken into multiple campaigns (which are a series of operations), operations (which are a series of maps) and stand-alone battles. Typically, each operation, whether stand alone or apart of a campaign, lasts up to fifteen days but usually takes around a week to play. While the combat can feel stiff and dated, what CC really excels at is unit rosters, equipment, and map detail.

Each map is essentially hand drawn to represent either a tactical battle which took place from historical references or data, which is very impressive!

There are countless battles that have stuck in my head while playing The Close Combat series, but specifically the third (The Russian Front) was one that I always came back to because of the ferocity and desperation each battle managed to portray: two awful totalitarian juggernauts pitting themselves against each other.

The scale of the war is miniaturized significantly. Battlefields are being held by forces not much bigger than a company (up to 200 soldiers).  Your leadership role caps out at rank Major in either the Wehrmacht or Soviet Army.

Close Combat’s decision to scale its conflict allows the wargame to excel at its finest tactical levels. You, as the armchair general, can feel invested and join in and appreciate the Kameradschaft of your pander-grenadiers or feel the rush of patriotism for the Motherland when your Streltsy overcomes a hardened position.

 This is where this story comes in. There’s one grand finale, perfectly named Götterdämmerung, the Battle of Berlin. For this story I have chosen to play as the Germans in the defense of the regime’s capital, a last stand of the lair of the Fascist beast.

I put the difficulty sliders to highest they would go and purposefully limited my unit selection and direction in order to let the battles feel more natural and immersive, rather than cheesing the two-decade old artificial intelligence.

The Wehrmacht’s Berlin Garrison composition was, at best, eclectic. My roster’s selection consists of fanatical infantry, battered regular army units and the desperate scratch units but my spending power is nearly exhausted. The first of two maps Defense Sector Z (Z stood for Zentrum, or the center where the Government section of Berlin functioned), first the Ministry of the Interior and the Moltke Bridge, which is recreated in very accurate detail. The government sector would represent the last stand for the Berlin Garrison with no expected relief to happen due to developments of the battle inside and outside the capital. 

Several tanks and self-propelled guns reinforce my ragtag infantry disposition. I’ve followed German tactics of Korsettstangen or Corset-Stiffeners, mixing experienced soldiers with second-grade or other poor quality units to firm up defense and fire.

The first day’s battle for the Spree crossing was anchored around a lone Ferdinand self-propelled tank destroying juggernaut. This vehicle was capable of knocking out every Soviet tank fielded, and was near impossible to destroy in return with its 200mm thick frontal armor. It was this vehicle that would sit across the bridge with infantry and anti-tank guns in close support to stave off any assaults on the Moltke Bridge. I had left a single platoon to stand flank guard in the Lehrter rail station on the opposite bank.

The 3rd Guards Army was historically responsible for the assault across the Spree river and the final assault against the Reichstag. Defending the Spree initially was nearly half a division (five thousand men) organized in battlegroups, scratch battalions and companies, where the Soviets had nearly eight regiments of (on paper) twenty-five hundred men each, although its probable to assume these were worn from the constant offensive fighting since January 1945. Suffice it to say, the odds were not in the defender’s favor.

The Moltke Bridge is the only connection over the Spree River which separates the Soviets Army and the defending Berlin Garrison

April 28th Day One:

The first day opened with heavy bombardment, with 76mm, 152mm, 203mm guns and rocket Katyushas rained down on the Zentrum sector across the Spree. This bombardment, which the Soviets called Framing, instantly blows up one of my defensive 88mm Pak 43s set up in Schlieffenufer. The ammunition explodes and the crew is instantly killed. This leaves my Ferdinand only left with an inexperienced Pantherturm (a rare site to see this bunker in a video game!!)  and my Panthers in reserve at the back of Herwarth Straße (street).

Soviet disposition consists mostly of veteran assault engineers, who carry sub-machine guns and flamethrowers, and several T-34-85s and the larger Joseph Stalin tanks (JS-II). The defending Germans still feeling the pressure from the bombardment, with their cries calling out as shrapnel and concussion rack up several casualties amongst the defenders. Already reeling from this pressure, the Jagdpanther and the commander’s Panzer IV H are both knocked out simultaneously. While the commander group manages to walk out of the wreckage mostly unscathed, the wreck of the Jadgpanther on Herwarth blocks the Ferdinand from pulling back, and Panther from pulling up to reinforce at bridge crossing.

The Ferdinand tank destroyer manages to knock out three T-34 Soviet Tanks but is immobilized by a Russian self-propelled gun. This now puts the Moltke crossing at a severe disadvantage as now the Soviet Army across the river can position themselves out of the 28-degrees it can traverse left and right.

The Ferdinand repeatedly absorbs shellfire from tanks across the river, plummeting the tank crew’s morale and in the ensuing chaos they abandon the 65-tonne mammoth in the middle of the street. Just before that, the Pantherturm turret bunker is also knocked out, leaving the defense of the river entirely up to the infantry.

At this point, I’ve decided to pull back to the next map with what’s left of the battered infantry platoons. The climatic end of the war for my company would be its sealing within the tomb to be, the Reichstag.

Casualties are quickly climbing in the desperate brawl of the last defense sector of the city. Within minutes of the map engagement, nearly all the German anti-tank capability is immobilized or knocked out.

April 29th Day Two:

Reinforcements for my battered infantry units came as a veteran Tiger II (post-war known as a King Tiger or Royal Tiger) from the nearby SS-Heavy Panzer Battalion ‘503’. Historically, two of these gigantic Tiger II tanks operated in the Reichstag area with another Tiger I tank operating and subsequently lost nearby the Brandenburg gate. However, fate in this Wargame leaves me with only one Tiger II tank at my disposal. I concentrated the tank at the steps of the Reichstag, again as an anchor and using the plaza as a perfect field of fire and an absorption of tank gunfire instead of against the Reichstag building, which hosts my infantry.

I also topped up my platoons of infantry and brought in fanatical and conscripted infantry to man the windows with machine guns and panzerfausts to ward off the brave Soviet soldiers who dare charge towards the building.

Like the first day, the battle began with heavy bombardment focusing on the Reichstag building. Much like its real-life counterpart, the building was surprisingly sturdy and well built to take the constant shelling. Few casualties are caught in this blast but some groups aren’t so lucky, in particular the ones gathered in reserve in the main hall.

The immediate danger across the Konigsplatz is nearly a half dozen Russian tanks and self-propelled guns (SPGs), each traversing to focus fire on the Tiger tank. Fortunately, the final Tiger immediately adds a kill-ring to it’s barrel by knocking out an unfortunate T-34-85 tank as shells nearly miss the perched royal beast.

The Reichstag’s defense is desperately dependent on this final tank. The Tiger II manages to earn the respect of the killing field by knocking out nearly all armored vehicles on the second day.

Ringing deflections ring out over and over as the King Tiger manages to shrug off constant tank fire. Using the fountain as partial cover, the Tiger II traverses left to right, scoring multiple kills with nearly one or two shots per vehicle.

Soviet soldiers crossed the Kongisplatz tank ditch en masse preparing to overwhelm the solo tank, but are ruthlessly cut down by the machine gun manned defenders at the steps of the building. With dead, wounded, and burning tanks in front of the Reichstag, the Russians offered a truce, which the defenders gladly accepted, pushing the battle to a third day.

April 30th Day 3:

Nearly no requisition points came to the overall pool in the intermission menu, and now groups were beginning to report needing rest. I was unable to grant such requests of relief to the defenders of the Reichstag. Placing all the infantry units in the self-proclaimed Festung (fortress) Reichstag, and the lone Tiger out front, I intended to repeat the second day’s success by knocking out tanks one-by-one and waiting for infantry to get close and out in the open before opening fire on them.

The Tiger tank leveled its gun and traversed with the Soviet tanks and SPGs approaching from the Konigsplatz. Several tanks were knocked out in quick succession, even when shells rained down around the Tiger. However, the overwhelming force of the 3rd Shock Army meant that the end was inevitable. The Tiger II tank took fire from a Joseph Stalin tank and a specialized Soviet 100mm self propelled tank destroyer and suffered a catastrophic brew up, killing the entire crew.

While the Tiger tank managed to fight back and stave off doom for a day, its final roars came about on the third day, leaving the doorway open for the final assault of the Reichstag building.

This crew of five within the iron beast had managed to delay the capture of the building for nearly to days but suffered the inevitable fate of so many within the city, which felt quite opposite of the often fantasied Hero’s death. Not even the onlookers from the Reichstag could pause for the loss as now the shelling from artillery was joined in with shelling from tank and SPG fire outside.

Soviet sappers and assault groups again stood up and dashed towards the front steps of the Reichstag, finding cover in crater holes and by the fountain. As they got within dozens of meters to the steps and the burnt-out Tiger tank, only then did the defenders open fire, providing enfilading fire which quickly cut down the assault troops. Each platoon that opened within the building suffered terrible consequences as their positions at the walls and windows would be met with tank fire flung across the Konigsplatz.

Casualties mounted on both sides, but with nearly all the infantry assault groups either pinned by sniper fire or mostly wounded or killed, the Soviets had no choice but to encircle the building with tanks and bait the groups out and hopefully cut them down before knocking out their armored units.

This tactic was met with mixed results, but with the guiding hand of more experienced troops within the Reichstag, the inexperienced combat groups pulled away from the entrance and regrouped in the inside, waiting for the vehicles to approach on the buildings flanks. From here, the defenders took turns sprinting to the windows to fire off panzerfausts, grenades, and flamethrowers to knock out assaulting vehicles. Two previously German tanks, a Panzer IV and Panther V. were immediately knocked out by Panzerfausts. More Russian tanks followed this reversal of cat and mouse when they came too close during the street fighting. By this time, the Reichstag was completely surrounded, and the Soviets captured the Brandenberg Gate and Tiergarten plaza that connected the famous monument and buildings.

The Russians, spent of their assault groups, requested another truce over the radio to collect wounded – a break the defenders gladly accepted given the rare circumstance for a break during the battle of Berlin.

Craters, vehicle debris, and corpses laid outside and within the Reichstag; this gruesome digital battle had managed to capture the desperate fighting as the war drew to a close.

May 1st Day 4:

The fourth day drew no new illusions to the outcome of those defending within the Reichstag. Ammunition of the defenders was down to a dozen rounds per rifle and a few dozen per assault rifle and machine gun. Tank engines were heard in every direction outside and the famous battle cry of “Ura, Ura!

The Soviets fired at the defenders who knocked out another Joseph Stalin tank that got too close. This caused more casualties as they ran into the center hall and corridors now that the last of the Panzerfausts were spent. Towards the back of the building, a Soviet recon group probe was cut down by the Commander’s platoon. This was retaliated with a 152mm shell at nearly point blank range by a Soviet SU-152, which killed and incapacitated the Commander’s group immediately. Platoons throughout the building were down to 3-4 men each, mostly carrying assault rifles and submachines. They now fled towards deeper in the building.

Gathered in the inner halls and corridors, the defenders waited for the footsteps of the impending assault troops. Death to the defenders would not come swiftly as those in the first days who were struck with artillery or tank fire; the hand-to-hand combat was to be grueling.

Assault Engineer groups of nine troops entered from the main steps and quickly tossed grenades in the main hall, stunning the nearby inexperienced fanatical soldiers. This was immediately followed up by bursts of submachine gun fire and flame throwers. Screams and gunfire echoed throughout the building, and hand to hand melee followed in-between shots. The lesser experienced police and conscript units surrendered but still took casualties during the chaos. The remaining defenders were less than ten men, firing and subsequently pinning the assault groups to the ground as they poured into the building. Only when the group was flanked and did grenades rain down on them did the fighting finally die out and finish the operation in a victory for the 3rd Shock Army of the Soviet Union.

The Götterdämmerung operation in Close Combat III (or Iron Cross) played out like an amateurish battle when compared to the real-life events during the closing stages of the war. But as both sides fought on, each desperate to survive and to overcome, the assaulting Soviets managed to achieve victory by May 1st (which is roughly when the building was captured, depending on accounts), which is an impressive comparison when viewing the results within this decades old wargame. 

This historical battle itself meant the final nail in the Nazi Regime, but through digital simulation, it can be seen first hand how desperate all the fighting was for both sides when considering how close it was to the end of the war. Wargames as a genre help explore possibilities and accounts that enable us to see history with our digital actors. They tell stories which may have otherwise been missed by second hand accounts or fading memories of those who were there. Close Combat, and the wargame genre as a whole, allow us to keep experiencing untold stories for ourselves and to share with others when the time is right.

Post-battle view of the Moltke Bridge and the Reichstag further behind, for comparison of the Götterdämmerung operation

Have you played any wargames lately and or do you any stories to share?

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