Revisiting the Engineer-Sapper Battalion

After a near two-year hiatus, I have been working on my Soviet Engineer-Sapper Battalion for this years Warfare Tournament run by Reading Wargames Club being held in November. Before reading this you may find my original article from 2020 a useful reminder.

I used a mixture of models to represent the Battalion HQ, I have a politcal and artillery officer on my Leader stand co-ordinating the action

I’ve learnt a lot about them in the past 2 years and thought I’d share some of my learning with you all.
This isn’t a direct comparison of the two lists as my original one was for 100 points and Warfare 2022 is a 110point tournament, so I have a bit more flexibility in unit selection. This is actually very helpful as I found that 100 points for the Engineer-Sappers just wasn’t quite enough points for everything I wanted/needed, especially as other nations forces have evolved (you could say got cheaper) from June 1944.

Designing the Engineer-Sapper Units

The first lesson I learned was that the core of the formation needs to be designed with a a specific way of playing in mind, but combined with a mental flexibility to cope with the vagaries of scenario selection. The Engineer-Sapper Formation is very limited and a more one trick pony formation than many infantry formations. It doesn’t mean you can’t play in another style with them, just that it is a lot harder to do so. I generally found with my other, more evenly distributed, list I just couldn’t do anything quite well enough. I either didn’t have enough bodies in the units in the assault or I had too little anti-tank defence available in early turns or I lacked for counter battery capability as I advanced. After some soul searching and talking this through with some other players I ultimately decided what was needed was to rebalance my infantry platoons at the heart of my Force.

My Original sized units

I started out with two medium 14 team platoons and a small one as a reserve. What I struggled with was how to effectively manage my two medium sized platoons on the table top what I found was as soon as I started to swap out my SMG teams for support weapons I simply reduced their assault effectiveness (which is what Engineer-Sappers do best) too much and I ended up with two OK units but often I couldn’t be decisive eenough, or mass enough numbers to overcome defensive fire. Being Aggressive hit on a 3+ is a real hinderence in an assault even if the enemy are pinned. Even with the smoke pots, at best an assault in open ground will see you take 50% hits, your opponent only needs 5 MG armed teams or 2 to 3 tanks to statisticlly stop you everytime. Getting the defensive fire down to a managable level was often just too hard to achieve before I ran out of assault capable teams. My regular opponents quickly learned to concentrate their fire on them rather than the heavy weapons teams.

My original support ideas ISU-122 and even SU-100 tanks

So I have changed this to a single maximum sized platoon and two minimised sized ones. This doesn’t change the points spend but it had a number of functional impacts on the table top and they way I use them. I have chosen to give up overall list flexibility for a more effective assault phase. In theory now I can make 12+ team assaults meaning I need to suffer 8 or more hits from defensive fire for the defender to stop the assault (its hard to do, but can be done). I also now have my DP/MG teams concentrated in a single unit which is actually more effective than having them spread across two units. This also has meant I am now always looking to play an aggressive attacking game (even when I am the Defender) to maximise this monster combat unit investment. The final consequence was it has changed the way in which I allocated out my heavy weapons within my defined tactical set up for the better. I now know what every platoon is going to do – now I just need to deploy them correctly.

Placing Heavy Weapons

With two medium platoons, the temptation was to always try and share out all the heavy weapons types across both platoons as I wasn’t committed to a particular role for either unit. This meant often I would reduce them to too few SMG teams to sustain the casualties I nearly always take, or not have enough pinning fire to support my assaults. As a rule of thumb, I expect to lose 60% of my teams from a Soviet infantry unit; if those losses are concentrated on the SMG teams this will leave you with no assault capable teams from a medium sized unit if you swap out more than three teams. Often with a pair of medium sized unit I was wanting to swap out four or more teams from both platoons. By having one maximum sized unit completely focussed on assault with two DP/MG teams, Panzerfausts and RPG-6 grenades. I now only add at most three heavy weapons teams to this unit, a maxim HMG team added to the DP teams to give me a solid firebase even when pinned and the flame thrower teams to boost the chances of pinning the assault target or deal with Nests, after this I still have 17 SMG teams. Now if I lose 60% of them getting to start an assault I still have 5-7 assault teams, pretty much the same numbers as most other nations platoons are likely to have, and these guys swing very hard in an assault even against heavy armour.

Swapping in a Maxim team or two with the two DPMG teams in the large unit forms a solid fire grouping overcoming the challenge of the 4″ (10cm) range of the SMG’s.

My two minimum sized platoons now play two fixed roles. The first is simply to support my assault with extra teams; this platoon will have some weapons to ward off light armour trying to mess up my assault so these get Panzerfausts, RPG-6 grenades and one or two PTRD teams if I feel they are needed. Their other role is to provide additional source of smoke pots to screen my main assault platoon so the heavy weapons are minimised unless needed. The final platoon are set up more as a defensive platoon, protecting my artillery support position. Here I add a mortar (these add harassing fire and are there to pin opponents) along with a mix of Maxim and PTRD teams along with some RPG-6 grenades in case. I don’t always have panzerfausts in this unit as I often have only a small number of SMG teams left. Its not points efficient to take them on the odd chance they will get used, the artillery teams themselves provide tank assault defensive fire so overall they are less useful in a platoon sitting nearer the back of the table. So that’s how my infantry have got reconfigured, with focussed roles on the tabletop.

Filling the Formation

I now have a really solid infantry formation but with the two smaller platoons. By a weird quirk of fate, it’s actually easier to break than my previous version, if left like this. Luckily, I have one more formation slot left which was originally filled by the multi purpose ISU-122 unit. These assault guns provided a good artillery bombardment and a moderate ranged AT offence, powerful but restricted by RoF 1 and slow firing. However, I found, what with all the moving infantry teams, getting to use those big AT14 guns was tricky, especially as with five of them you don’t really want to waste that bombardment power you are paying for and, being assault guns, they are poor in an assault so need to be kept away from the enemy! So, I tried a few of the other options and the ISU-152’s suffer all the same problems, whilst the IS-2’s are too expensive. You can only really afford three without weakening the infantry platoons and you really want five of them, especially in the current environment facing a lot more AT13+ equipped teams compared to back in 2020.

I tried the IS-2 but not enough of them can be taken

The solution to the mobility issue is to take the OT-34 unit; these have the same ROF as the bigger tanks on the move and you can have more for the same points. Yes they are more susceptible to incoming fire but they are just as good in an assault as the ISU’s, move a lot quicker so can get flank shots and have the added bonus of having flamethrowers which can support my infantry very nicely and will deter infantry assaults in return; no one wants to get turned into a crisp. I’ve found a platoon of six with four upgraded to 85mm versions is a sweet spot. The AT12 isn’t quite as good as AT14, but I have more shots when stationary or a better chance to hit when moving, so more chances of bailing or killing enemy armour which my infantry can then mop up. The cheap 76mm tanks are there primarily to absorb casualties keeping my unit at its real fighting strength for as long as possible. Having six, they don’t take up too much table space and can be more easily fitted in amongst my infantry. This smaller on table footprint of the models is actually beneficial to me as I want to attack in a narrow front to maximise the value of my smoke pots for screening my attacking teams when the time comes.

OT-34’s from my collection with a mix of 76mm and 85mm guns

Supporting Cast

With my formation rebuilt and the structure of the game that I want to try to play better understood, I now turned to looking at my Support units more carefully.

Firstly, as I want to attack, I need to get across the table top so I have retained my “Under Cover of Smoke” Command Card, it doesn’t always get to be used but when it does it is more than worth it. To have this I need a unit capable of delivering it and here I have kept the unit of Zis-3 76mm artillery guns to deliver the pre-game Smoke Bombardment. These guns can still fire using direct shooting in turn 2 when the smoke screen is still in play so having ROF2 is very handy and I can move them forward to help protect my advancing infantry from tanks; there seems to be nothing clear in the rules preventing them moving even in Turn 1.

My other regular Support unit is more 76mm guns but in the form of a five tank platoon of SU-76’s. These again provide more medium AT capability, plus that oh so useful five team bombardment. Its not as powerful as the ISU-122’s but it will still help coupled with my Engineer-Sapper mortar teams. They can also ambush effectively being ROF 2 if only AT 9 (this is the same tactic as German players use with their Stummels) but its all about quantity not quality and they are enough to deal with anything smaller than a Tiger.

Finally, I have no units who can only bombard in Turn 1 (I can ignore the mortar teams as the rest of their unit can do something), handy if I end up going first when playing a Meeting Engagement scenario.

I take a dedicated BA-64 OP Observer team so I can keep my HQ moving forward with my assault troops to minimise my chances of failing motivation rolls and not having to worry about them performing observing duties. This allows my guns to be well hidden from counter battery fire if needed, or to roll forward firing directly; this is often a more effective way to use them.

I have almost all the components I need in a competitive force. Plenty of assault troops, some supressing artillery, a wide variety of anti-tank capabilities but I lack for a spearhead option to push my units further forward at the start reducing the distance to the objective. The obvious solution was to take a unit of BA-64 armoured cars but these only move at infantry speed unless on a road. I looked at the option for the popular captured panzers but these reduce my available points too much and are a spearhead unit that I probably want to keep nearer maximum range. Luckily, in the case of the Engineer-Sappers, there was another option available, the Command Card Ivan Zabolotny who replaces the platoon leader in one Engineer-Sapper unit and grants that platoon the ability to perform a spearhead manoeuvre if you don’t have another unit with the spearhead rule. Additionally he allows his platoon to rally and counter assault on a 2+, which is super handy too.

You can read about all about Ivan’s life and war time experiences here. I have added him to my large unit so they can get forward before the game starts. As the Attacker invariably goes first, I can pack my unit into a small space and potentially have more troops join them, even just adding my HQ helps them. The 2+ Motivation to Rally/Counter Assault bonus keeps them moving forward and to almost always counter assault. It’s not certain but you can’t do better than a 2+ with a HQ reroll. plus I may still have my ‘Make Your Own Luck’ Command Card available if I don’t want to gamble rolling dice.  Ivan looks expensive at first, being  7pts, but spreading his cost over a platoon of 22 teams actually makes him no more expensive (0.3 pts per team) compared to spending 2 or 3 points on a warrior affecting a regular sized platoon of 7-9 teams.

My most recent list

So above is this iteration of the Force and I will be taking these to the table top at Warfare in November. Even if you are just playing at home with fiends I hope this helps some of you out there trying to make these work for you, Martin.

4 thoughts on “Revisiting the Engineer-Sapper Battalion

  1. Why not give big company RPG-6 hand grenades for +1? Counter attacking armor allows 2 teams use fausts and 2 teams use RPG-6s!

    1. Hi Dick,

      thanks for taking the time to read the article, the list I posted has 3x RPG-6 Anti-tank grendade Command Cards giving one of these to the large platoon is certainly something I would be doiing with that list. I don’t mention in the same way as the Faust upgrade as that is a more generic choice and there are occassions where I would choose to spend those points on other options after all and RPG-6 grenade is only any use vs armoured opponents in assault whilst the Faust provides multiple opportunities to use it.

  2. Hope this comment will be read by Martin. =D But I am very curious about your results from the tournament with this list. I will be using your article as a base for my army to build (and go from there). Thank you for sharing information and experiences. Hopefully I can return the favour one day.

    1. Hi Tim,

      I did prety well with three decisive 8-1 wins, a 3-3 (mutual loss that I would of won had my dice fallen more helpfully I got lots of hits folowed by no successful FP rolls or my oponent made lots of saves when it counted) and a 2-7 defeat. My key lesson was that I need to develop a bit of a better answer to the British Waspe/Crocodile combo due to their Range 6 flame weapons vs my big unit. I am looking to add some ranged AT possibly in the form of 45mm guns to deal with lightly armoured stuff. I may bite the bullet and my general dislike of planes in tournament lists and add in a Sturmovik flight as a more all around threat option, Duncan had a lot of success with his which has encouraged me to reconsider them as an option.

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