A4 - The Commissar's House Part One

This repost was first posted April 2014 and involved a large city fight scenario on the standard maps (another version exist as an RB scenario). The actual game (covered in part two) was fought against my new Czech opponent. I will hopefully report the battle report itself next week.

For my next game I am moving back to the Eastern Front and for the first time since I played ‘The Guards Attack’ in Squad Leader decades ago I am returning to Stalingrad.  Now Stalingrad has always been a source of endless fascination to me so this initial post will be somewhat anomalous to my normal AAR structure. I intend to use it to go over some more detailed historical description and analysis (primarily based around Jason.D.Mark’s excellent detailed books on the subject). If you just want the After Action report without some of the history involved in the Scenario card then wait for the next post.
Scenario Card
Now this scenario is one of the first to be generated for the entire system but as in Curt Schillings excellent article on the perils of Historical Research in ‘Journal Two’ – ‘Can you ever be sure?’ it does suffer from two minor problems –  new information makes existing assumptions incorrect along with the always present need to use a generic map board to represent a known location. As with a lot of things in ASL the scenario designer has attempted to provide the ‘feel’ of the battle as opposed to the exact details of the battle.
Historical Background
The wider historical background should be well known but to precis it the German 6th Army had been attempting to take Stalingrad and was rapidly being weakened by the intense city fighting. In an attempt to break the deadlock and to seize the last few hundred metres of the city still controlled by the Soviets a strong force of five Pioneer battalions (combat engineers) were transferred to Stalingrad to provide a lever to smash open the door. For the local commanding officers even this was not enough and they also requested more standard infantry troops to back up these specialists. This request was refused.
For the area of the scenario the senior existing commanding officer was  Eugen Rettenmaier who was in charge of Grenadier Regiment 578.
Eugen Rettenmaier
Rettenmaier, born 9th December 1891, had started working life as a teacher but had joined the German army right at the start of World War One and in that conflict had picked up no less than five wounds and both grades of Iron Cross. After the war he returned to teaching but was soon re-activated for World War Two. From what I can tell he was a decent man who fulfilled an almost father figure role for his troops. He was also one of the oldest officers in a senior combat role in this area of Stalingrad.
Rettenmaier had been on site for a few weeks and was already familiar with the area and what needed to be done. His objectives during the attack were to take the Chemists house (or Pharmacy or Apotoke – I shall use Chemists House to match the scenario card) and the Commissar’s House before driving the last few metres to the Volga. To help him he had the assistance of one company (the 1st) of his division’s attached Pioneer battalion (the 305th) under Lieutenant Zorn and one of the five newly transferred Pioneer battalions – the 50th Panzer Pioneer battalion under its enthusiastic CO Erwin Gast.
Lieutenant Zorn
For the attack against the Chemical factory he realised (through observation) that all the main entrances were blocked up so decided to use his attached pioneers to blow new holes in the building to assault through. This task was passed to the pioneer company.
Lieutenant Zorn is an example of that unusual Germans habit of ensuring that good quality men, wherever they come from, get promoted. He had started as a standard soldier but his talents had been recognised and he was moved up to the officer corps. This ability to recognise quality and reward it is one of the strengths of the German army of the time that perhaps gets less notice than it should. The other thing is there appears a lot less looking down on officers promoted from the ranks that some other armies at various times seem to have had. Though his command was a company it had been serving on the Eastern Front and Stalingrad long enough that it was a shadow of its formal self. At this point his company consisted of himself. four NCO’s and 24 other ranks so was under platoon strength.
Lieutenant Zorn was kept very busy. The night before the attack he was out with his company clearing paths through the minefields in front of the Commissars House (as the 50th were new to the area and were unfamiliar with its setup). Then in the very early morning he took his company covertly to the Chemists House and planted explosive charges against the walls. His troops then stole back and prepared their detonators. At 03:55 these were set off and the supporting infantry from the 578th stormed forward seizing the majority of the building. Zorn’s company took zero casualties in the attack that day,
Erwin Gast
The final leading German character in our ‘cast’ is Erwin Gast. This was another officer known for being aggressive (or even opinionated as a trooper) who had also been promoted through the ranks. He had also been rapidly recognised as a potential star and then been very quickly promoted. At the start of the War he had been an adjutant followed by a company commander in the 9th Pioneer Battalion and had served through the Western campaign also gaining both grades of Iron Cross. At the end of this he had moved to a training battalion (mainly to allow him to consolidate skills and because he was still extremely young (born 18th October 1911)). He had continually requested a transfer back to a serving unit and eventually got it and was given command of the 50th a month before the attack.
He does appear a confident and aggressive officer who would stand his ground against anyone. This promptly seems to have created an interesting situation between him and the far more experienced Rettenmaier. He was given the task of taking the Commissar’s House.
Rettenmaier’s notes state
‘The Commander expressly waived being supported by infantry’
So Gast appears to have decided that his ‘elite’ troops could take the building on their own without infantry support. We can speculate if this was bravado and over confidence – it is certainly not unusual for army officers to be overly keen on their own specialisation.
Perhaps he had been surprised at the run down appearance and strengths of the existing troops (or any perceived negativity towards any attack). Rettenmaier appears surprised by this but acquiesced. Gast though was setting himself a difficult target. The Pioneers would be overloaded with the tools of their trade (mines, flame throwers etc ) and would have little space for extra ammunition. If they did seize the building then they might have difficulties holding it.
Fedor Iosifovich Pechenyuk
 The Commissar’s House
The Commissar’s House (so named because several captured Russians had told their German captors in November that a NKVD blocking detachment was based there – and the Germans mis-interpreted this as ‘Commissars’ – to the Russians it was Dom 60 or the ‘Administration Building’ as it was here that the factories were formerly administered). The Russian defenders here were the 650th Rifle Regiment of the 138th Diviision under Pechenyuk plus some local Barrikady workers militia. NKVD forces were still in the area but behind the building closer to the shore. Pechenyuk was born 1906 and was of Ukrainian origin and was regarded highly
‘for his bravery and was gifted in that priceless intuition in war which enabled him to take bold decisions and carry them into effect’
Unlike the attack against the Chemist’s House the Pioneers had been unable to find any open areas to plant their charges partly due to excellent Russian defensive preparations and partly due to the age of the building (1916) and partly with the fact it was the administration office for the entire factory zone so had been very, very heavily built.
The ‘Commissar’s House’ prior to the war (viewed from the Factory side)
As Rettenmaier observed
Armed with mines and other explosives they plunged into darkness to place them in and around the house. They tried to find an entrance or other opening into which they could place their charges. However, nothing could be found because everything was bricked up or so skilfully camouflaged that any search in the dark was in vain. For that reason the pioneers waited for the dim light of dawn.
Unfortunately the Russians were alert and the Germans were observed in the surrounding craters and were repulsed with loss.
Rettenmaier again
Many pioneers fell, lifeless, far more crept back, exhausted and bleeding, and formed up for a trip to the Hospital. They had achieved nothing here, except for perhaps gaining the experience that this way would not result in them obtaining their objective.
The Russians NKVD unit had commented
On 11 November 1942, the facists were all fired up to capture the factory  administration building. A company of Germans concentrated in shell craters not far from the defenses of  our building. Their destruction was necessary because they were assembling  their attack. For this task, militiaman Fedin grabbed some grenades, left the building under the cover of his submachine-gunner Putirin, tossed grenades at the Germans, forcing their survivors to give up and then take flight.
The failure of the attack must have been potentially mortifying to Gast, especially in comparison with the easy seizure of the Chemists House. If he had had more time to acclimatise himself with the environment then things may well have been different.
It is useful to note that in the follow up attack three or so days later Gast and the 50th had learned from their mistakes and in that attack attacked with infantry support. They also cleverly adjusted their target  point to the main entrance  which rather perversely was the safest place to attack, as it was so overlooked by Russian positions the Russians never expected that the Germans would be that audacious so they managed to surprise the defenders. Gast certainly showed the ability to learn (quickly) from his mistakes and his later command of the remaining pioneers was both effective and efficient.
The failure to take the Commissar House put too much pressure on the German attacks on the flanks and probably helped ensure they failed as well though it is perhaps unlikely that they would have entirely succeeded in their objectives even if the Commissar’s House had been taken.
The Future
The three German officers had very different fates. Lieutenant Zorn was wounded the following day on the 12th November and flown out of the pocket. He carried on fighting and survived the war dying 16th September 1989. Eugen Rettenmaier was eventually captured along with his men inside Stalingrad and then survived the Russian Prison camps. He returned to Germany to discover most of his sons had died during the war dying himself on the 7th January 1965. Erwin Gast also survived to be captured but it is perhaps indicative of the man that when the Soviets requested all Sappers to step forward he did so – the Russians wanted them to tidy up the mines scattered over Stalingrad and many of the Pioneers who did so were killed in this dangerous task. It is not known how he met his death but can perhaps be assumed from the last thing he was known to have done.
Scenario Card
You will have noticed (perhaps) that no mention has been made of either the German Grenadier 577th or the Russian 118th. The 577th did attack that day but along with the 336th Pioneers and the 3rd company of the 305th Pioneers . A battalion of the 118th Guards Rifles appears to have been to the left of the fuel depot around the 25th but does not seem directly involved in the defense at this period. The scenario card also lists the attack as occurring incorrectly on the 9th November instead of the 11th November plus not mentioning the 578th or the existence of any of the 305th in the attack.
The Map
The scenario designers have to do what they can with generic maps and here the locations of the Chemists House and Commissar’s house have been switched around.
The many Russian defenders are screening the buildings but the red square indicates the Commissar’s House for the purposes of the scenario whereas the light purple square does the same for the Pharmacy/Chemists house. The dark blue line is the approximate starting point of the Germans.
If you look at an ariel photograph of the battlefield post battle you can see how much closer the two buildings actually were
(using the same colour scheme).
Jason.D.Marks excellent maps make it even clearer
Now most scenarios are designed for effect and not always for accuracy (which is almost impossible for a generic map) plus balance requirements would mean a very different scenario should (for example)  the two victory buildings be placed actually next to each other. For ‘better’ accuracy you would have to look at the HASL campaign games. If we look at the relevant section of the ‘Red Barricades’ map
Now the Commissars House is clear with the chemist shop being rubbled entirely (a later image used for it?) Haus 53 and 72 have also been rubbled whereas the Kindergarten is ‘clear’. MMP (or Avalon Hill as it was at the time) really did a good job or making the constraints of a hex based game map match up to the terrain. It is interesting to see some of the choices made and to look at later versions of campaign games. ‘Festung Budapest’ for example takes the opposite approach and does not rubble anything but then uses counters used to show the progressive damage.
For those of us without ‘Red Barricades’ the new HASL being worked on by MMP ‘Red October’ is intended to attach to the South of that map and there is a possibility of the ‘Red Barricade’ Map being re-issued with the module.
Either way I am excited at the prospect of so much of Stalingrad to ‘fight’ over…
Looking good at this early stage.
Anyway Part two of this post will cover the actual action and how enjoyable it was as a game. Hopefully this has provided some interest for players of that scenario. I can not recommend enough Jason.D.Marks books on the topic. Unfortunately ‘Island of Fire’ is now out of print but you can still get hold of the excellent ‘Into Oblivion’ – which covers the 305 Pioneer Battalion in some detail and ‘Angrief’ a pictorial history of Stalingrad (plus many other excellent books) at his site.
for a more strategical level you could do a lot worse than David Glantz Stalingrad series
Thanks for reading.
 * Photographs from ‘Island of Fire’ reprinted with permission of Jason.D.Marks. He and the original copyright holders retain all rights over these images which should not be re-used without permission.


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