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Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Bolt Action - Review: Combat - Barbarossa 1941 - German Infantryman Versus Soviet Rifleman

Today I had the pleasure of reading through Osprey Publishing's latest entry into its Combat series of books.

For anyone involved in a hobby that includes this period, this book is fantastic. The publisher's summary will quickly explain exactly why:

"The Axis invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 pitted Nazi Germany and her allies against Stalin's forces in a mighty struggle for survival. Fighting alongside Germany's spearhead Panzer divisions were the highly skilled and veteran motorized infantrymen. Opposing them were Soviet rifle regiments - units that were often poorly equipped and ill-trained, yet incredibly tenacious and resilient in the face of appalling losses.
Featuring first-hand accounts, full-colour maps and artwork, this book assesses three bruising clashes during the first weeks of the campaign - a bloody encounter battle at Zhlobin, the struggle for the destroyed city of Smolensk and then a prolonged fight along a dangerously stretched German defensive perimeter at Vas'kovo-Voroshilovo. Together, these actions offer important insights into the combat performance of ordinary fighting men on both sides; their successes and setbacks would determine the course of World War II on the Eastern Front."

David Campbell is the author of this title and Johnny Shumate is the illustrator. The two work together perfectly to make what amounts to everything you'd find in the best rulebook you've ever read, minus the rules themselves. This is like an all-time greatest hits book of Barbarossa flavor text for a gamer! In my opinion, the best part is that it assumes the reader has no previous knowledge of the period nor wargaming in general.

The picture above depicts one portion of one of the many helpful illustrations for the painter and gamer. Equipment is described in detail, as well as the colors of the items. The picture below serves as a key for the maps featured throughout the book. I found this a welcome addition, as I must have skipped the Order of Battle Symbols 101 class in my wargaming education.

As you might expect, the images throughout the book are dynamic and engaging - perfect for the wargamer imagining over a tabletop - as evidenced below. What really captured my attention, though, was the way the book tackled every subject in a way that stacked the two sides against each other. Even the artwork in the book sometimes evoked the "versus" feel of the whole title.

One section might start with describing German command, and it is immediately followed by a comparison section on Soviet command. The next might discuss the equipment and tactics of the Germans, while the subsequent covers those of the Soviets. It provided a consistent pace and rhythm to the entire read while I found very much set the hook. I could not stop between sections.

Another feature wargamers will love, especially those with a drive to play historical scenarios, is the battle sections of the book. A significant portion of the book is used to describe the three battles (Zhlobin, Smolensk, and Vas'kovo-Voroshilovo) the opposing forces participated in. The information contained within these sections describes the forces, terrain, background, and summary of each engagement, which are exactly the things needed to play your own historical battles based on the fights.

When it comes to getting into wargaming, I'm a sucker for the first-hand accounts. This book has a ton of them. Nothing gets the gaming itch going better than a good anecdote. Here's a quote from the author's research, found on page sixty-two of the text:

"... for a moment, we had a clear view [of] the field before us. - They're coming!! - Great masses of men were climbing down into the bottom land. Mounted officers circled round them. Everything ahead of us was brown with Russians ... Most of them were now in the bottom land. The Russian artillery fire ceased. Our ears were ringing ... Oblt. Hanert, commander of the machine gun company, stood in his slit trench. - 800 meters - He did nothing ... A sustained fire opened up from twelve machine guns at once. It began and ended abruptly ... In seconds the mass of men was gone."

The following from page thirty-two is a great example of how this book can be used to accurately terrain a table by those interested in playing out historical scenarios:

"The area surrounding Zhlobin was variable, with small hills and valleys giving way to lower marshland and peat bogs fed by the Dobysna River, especially around south-eastern Pobolovo and the western approaches to Zhlobin itself, with the west bank of the Dnieper north of the town also dominated by swampy ground. The weather had been consistently hot and sunny, with tall growths of rye and other crops peppering the outskirts of most towns and villages in the area."
The section goes on for many more paragraphs describing in great detail what the terrain was like during the fighting that occurred at Zhlobin.

If you're a wargamer and plan to play anything involving Barbarossa or the forces that participated in the battle, you owe it to yourself to check this book out. Even if unintentional - which I doubt - this book seems ready made for the gamer. The entire adversarial approach to the history feels very much like the flavor text you'd read in a rule book. That is to say, a very well written and researched rule book. I can't wait to see what other WWII Combat books Osprey comes out with.

If that picture and the text around it doesn't give you the itch to chuck dice, nothing will!

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