The Center Must Hold, part 2: The Winter Offensive

Author: hoyarugby
Published: 2018-10-30, edited: 2018-10-30

Part of the campaign:

The Center Must Hold

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Game: Hearts of Iron IV

The Center Must Hold

Images: 18, author: hoyarugby, published: 2018-10-22

November 1937, The Eastern Front

October's Operation Frost had been a great success. Two Syndicalist divisions captured, hundreds of square miles liberated, and an enormous salient created in central Pennsylvania. There, the frontline stretched from the Maryland State Line, to the Sesquahannah River, and finally through the mountains northwest into the tractless second growth forest of the Alleghenies

Elsewhere, the Virginia front remained quiet as poorly equipped Americans on all sides tried to stay warm in the Appalachians, while the grizzled veterans of Gen. Gerow remained dug in along the Roanoke, warily awaiting another Longist attack. In the West, the Rocky Mountain Line holds firm even as vast columns of refugees stream west

With periodic winter rains turning precarious dirt roads to mud, and heavy snows threatening, some in the War Department urged a winter halt. But "Hap" Arnold and Patton, commanders in the East, urged further advance. The great steel center of Pittsburgh was near, and further delay might see the Syndicalists realize the precariousness of their exposed position, causing them to retreat behind the Appalachians
By early November, Patton's exhausted Marauders were in position. Some struggled forward through dirt back country roads in the forests and mountains turned to mud, while others made the long, circuitous journey around the Syndicalist lines into Maryland.

The plan was simply. On November 7th, half of Patton's force each would attack the neck of the salient. They would break through Syndicalist defenses, rush into the Syndicalist rear, and then proceed to crush the pocket or proceed west (depending)
In the North, the great valleys of the Appalachians funneled Patton's men down narrow lines of advance, dotted with towns that each could become a fortress. The greatest of these was the rail town of Altoona. Amply defended by local railworker unions and reinforced by Pittsburgh men, Federal scout planes had even spotted what they said looked like armored trains

Patton's men reached Altoona by November 10th, and savage fighting began. The workers' houses on the edge of town were mostly spared, and the fight centered on the enormous rail yards that bisected the town. The covered train sheds provided Syndicalist forces with cover as they moved to and fro, and the local Syndicalists put up heroic resistance despite being outnumbered three to one.

Advance units of the 8th Motorized were able to bypass the town on November 12th, and resistance mostly subsided by November 14th, aided by heavy bombing raids guided in by enormous plumes of smoke from burning coal stores. Several stubborn groups held out until the end of the month, surrendering only after they ran out of water
The other flank of Patton's northern attack was blocked by the town of State College. Appropriately named, it was home to the rapidly growing Pennsylvania State University. Though not initially known for radicalism compared to notorious institutions like Berkeley, it was affected by the radical climate of America in the 20s and 30s, and soon boasted armed Syndicalist student unions. When the War began, they took the town and, as Federal forces retook the East Coast, began to fortify their dorms and classrooms.

The 11th Motorized had the dubious honor of taking the town, and fighting began on November 9th. Though in scale it could not compare to the bombing raids and burning pyres of Altoona, the Battle of State College was a brutal, personal affair that struck a chord in all who witnessed it. The young people who were America's future were killing each other, and aspiring doctors and lawyers were being snuffed out by hand grenades and mortars

The town fell on November 11th, after Federalist troops set the fortress building Old Main alight with a few "Huey's Hotcakes" (as Molotov Cocktails were known in America), burning out the last Syndicalist holdout.

The road south was now wide open, and gaunt eyed and stinking Federalist troops rolled south
In the south, though geography held less of a grip on the more open fields of Southern Pennsylvania, it would not spare Gettysburg. Just as geography and local roads dictated the town's fate in 1863, it did the same in 1937. Straddling one of the most direct routes into the Syndicalist rear and well known for its formidable natural defenses, the town also seemed to hold a near-mystical allure for military leaders on both sides.

Advanced units of the 5th Motorized occupied Cemetery Ridge on the evening of November 8th, after pushing aside some skirmishers, and the rest of the division began an attack against Syndicalist troops deeply entrenched along Seminary Ridge the next day. The first two attacks failed, stymied by well entrenched Syndicalist machine guns and accurate artillery fire called in from the steeple of the Methodist seminary, but a third attack in the evening sent Syndicalist forces fleeing. Legend has it that Patton himself led the final attack on horseback, though this is almost certainly false - while Patton had insisted on being present at the attack (almost certainly to the detriment of the rest of his men), the Syndicalists were already pulling back after other Federalist troops outflanked Gettysburg's defenses to the West

The road north was now open, and Federalist troops rushed to meet their comrades
By November 14th, the noose had closed around the Syndicalists in Pennsylvania. The two flanks had met up along the Pennsylvania Turnpike at Bedford, and it was soon clear that the Syndicalists had not prepared at all for this attack. Like in Operation Frost, the Syndicalists had few reserves once their frontline forces were destroyed, and Federal trucks and requisitioned civilian cars were able to move almost at will

While some units turned north or back east to secure the encirclement, the 10th Motorized was given the task of capturing the great prize itself - Pittsburgh
The soot-blackened city of Pittsburgh was in some ways the spiritual home of the Syndicalist movement. Few other American cities were defined more by the Industrial Revolution, and the city had been the site of heavy clashes between labor and reaction in the lead up to the Civil War

Befitting such a radical city, many of its organized labor had transitioned into soldiers, and manned the frontlines in Pennsylvania. For several weeks, news about the disaster unfolding further east had trickled into the city, but confusion and official censorship had kept the full extent of the calamity from the public

It would become apparent on November 16th, as the soldiers of the 10th Motorized tore into the city. Driving along the excellent Pennsylvania Turnpike, they passed truckloads of Syndicalist reinforcements headed for the front and trains full of arms and supplies, the Syndicalist command unaware of how deep Federal forces were in their rear. The trucks and trains were dutifully captured or destroyed, and the first vehicles rolled into the city around noon.

Local civilians initially mistook the Federal troops for retreating Syndicalist men and gave them food and drink, leading rise to the popular propaganda myth that citizens of the CSA were sympathizers with the Federal Government.

Neighborhood Defense Councils and armed unions were caught completely by surprise, and by evening most important parts of the city had been secured. Many factories had been taken with only light damage, though many others were sabotaged. Some more competent local leaders managed to throw up barricades in the street, or lock down their factories, and Federal militia that later took over occupation duties in the city eventually had to root out the holdouts one by one, unpleasant and forgotten fighting

But despite these holdouts, Pittsburgh was in Federal hands for good. The 10th anxiously awaited reinforcements, while their comrades fought throughout Western Pennsylvania to secure the Federal victory in that state
By November 20th, it was all over but the dying. Motorized troops had raced to Eire on the Great Lakes and created a second, small pocket of Syndicalist troops in the Allegheny Forest. The great pocket, known as the Carlisle Pocket, was pressed on all sides and running out of ammunition
An undated photo (colorized) shows Federalist troops on the march in Pennsylvania. Though "motorized" on paper, after two months of heavy winter fighting many of Patton's units were down to a quarter strength in vehicles, and many griped at becoming "foot cavalry", still expected to advance at vehicle speed but without the equipment to do so.

Civilian cars and trucks were routinely "requisitioned", but often broke down faster than they could be replaced owing to heavy use
Federal propaganda showing surrendering Syndicalist troops in Pennsylvania. In reality Syndicalist forces often fought until they were out of ammunition and supplies, and rains and freezing conditions left the men who surrendered in bad shape
An actual photo, dated Thanksgiving Day, 1937, shows Syndicalist POWs taken in the Allegheny Forest. An early winter storm dumped two feet of snow on the starving Syndicalist holdouts in the forest, finally inducing surrender
But though the war in Pennsylvania fixated the world's attention, it was not the only major battle going on at the same time.

In the West, Long's forces launched an enormous offensive across the entire front. Convinced that the heavy fighting in the East had drained this theater of reinforcement, Long dreamed of a glorious march to the sea and the capture of California's much needed industrial base to fuel his war

The main thrust of the campaign was Denver
Though popularly known as a mountain town, much of the city actually lies more on the prairie, and much of the old city lay on the eastern bank of the North Platte river

Though its symbolic importance was great, the city was in reality a strategic liability. The city was a salient vulnerable to attack, and the Federal line would be much stronger if it pulled back just a few dozen miles into the mountains itself. Many of Supreme Western Commander Eisenhower's subordinates urged this course of action, but he refused - ever the politician, he knew that the city must be held as the lynchpin of the Republic's Western defenses. To lose it after abandoning a dozen other states could prove fatal to the tenuous unity between Washington and Sacramento that kept the country together

Despite the city's vulnerability, there was less that Ike could do to defend it than he wanted. Though California was building many of the weapons and munitions that the Republic was fighting with, little of that made it to Denver. Most was shipped off immediately to the East Coast, and Eisenhower had to spread what was left across a frontline of over 1,500 miles
Longist shock troops attacking Federal holdouts in the burning Laramie Square

Long's attack began at dawn on November 1st, a bitterly cold day. A quick artillery barrage suppressed the Federalist militia in their forward positions, and Longist shock troops rapidly overran the Federals on the East bank of the river. By noon the East bank was completely overrun, with only a stubborn knot of Nevada militiamen holding out in the well built buildings of downtown. Longist artillery pounded those buildings, and soon much of the city was in rubble or burning. By evening, Long's men were across the river in a dozen places.

But all was not lost for Eisenhower. He had carefully husbanded his resources and kept a reserve force of some of the best men from the prewar army hidden and well supplied. Two infantry divisions, a cavalry division, and a motley force of veteran China and Philippines Marines, they were on trains and headed for Denver by midnight.

Colorado Militia defending a street in Denver

Meanwhile in Denver, Federal militia kept up a stubborn fight. The Nevada militia fell back into a tight knot around Laramir Square, and nighttime raids from the West bank of the river kept a tenuous supply line for food and ammunition open.

Long's best shock troops resumed the attack on November 2nd, but failed to do much but enlarge their bridgeheads. Exhausted, they fell back and had their roles taken over by Texas militia, who proved no more successful at driving out Federal forces. By November 5th, the fight in the city had stalled out

It was here that Eisenhower unleashed his counterattack. The 2nd and 3rd infantry counterattacked on the morning of November 7th, and the China Marines crossed the North Platte in improvised boats and rafts to secure a bridgehead. Long's exhausted forces collapsed, and began a headlong retreat East by nightfall. The battle of Denver was over
Though the Battle of Denver was the most serious and famous battle of the Great Western Offensive, it was not the bloodiest. That dubious distinction belongs to the 3rd Battle of the Rio Grande, as Longist militia once again surged across the river to attack dug in Federal militia
Loyalist militia in the hills along the Rio Grande

At first, this attack was more successful than the last. The river was at its lowest ebb, barely more than a stream in many places, and Federal troops were caught by surprise.

But soon geography and numbers won out. Federal forces were dug in deep and held excellent defensive positions in hills along the river. On the contrary, Long's forces often didn't even outnumber Federal defenders, and were short of trained men and artillery

The Rio Grande was once again swollen with thousands of bodies, and a generation of Louisiana's finest young men were shattered
Not to be outdone, Long's commanders in the East also launched another attack against the Gerow Line in Virginia and North Carolina. Assuming that the Federalist forces had to break somewhere, they hoped it would be there
Loyalist militia along the Roanoke

They were sorely mistaken. After several thousand dead, Long's attack here was called off after just a week of slaughter. Loyalist casualties were in the hundreds

One of those casualites was significant though. The beloved General Gerow himself was badly wounded by a Longist tree burst while visiting the frontlines, losing his left arm. Still, Gerow was expected to make a swift recovery, and pledged to return to command his heartbroken troops
By December, the guns in the West fell (mostly) silent. Long's forces were utterly exhausted, and in many cases were simply shells of their former selves. Companies were the strength of platoons, platoons the strength of squads, and in one notable instance a private was left in charge of an entire company.

Much criticism has fallen on Eisenhower here for not ordering an immediate counteroffensive along the entire line, and post-war records confirmed this view after revealing the true extent of Long's casualties during November

Yet this criticism of Eisenhower is mostly unfair. Though the battle is now remembered as a great victory, at the time it was not so certain. Denver was in ruins, Eisenhower had thrown his only reserves into the fight there, and his limited stocks of ammunition were now critical. He also feared a Syndicalist attack in his north, as that front had been stripped of men to defend Denver

Still, Eisenhower's caution certainly got the better of him in some instances. Particularly along the Rio Grande, a local offensive to push across the river and take the high ground would not have impacted his overall defensive line, nor the defense of Denver, and would deny Long the use of a strong defensive position should the Federals ever go on the attack. Many Fedealist militia would pay the price for Eisenhower's caution in New Mexico
The month of November was very likely the bloodiest of the entire Civil War. Combined, nearly 100,000 young men fell in the Western Theater, mostly Long's militia in their offensive, but also Federals, and Syndicalists fighting in Nebraska. 100,000 more casualties were suffered in the East, though most of these were Syndicalist POWs. Savage fighting in Tennessee between Long and Reed sent another 50,000 men to an early grave

As December approaches, Patton looks West. Pennsylvania has been liberated (though holdouts and guerrilla war will persist until the 1940s), and Syndicalist defenses are in shambles. While the War Department ponders orders, he already has drafted orders for his exhausted Marauders to ride once again, this time into Ohio. But he also looks at the formidable mountains and strong Syndicalist defenses of West Virginia and sees not danger, but an opportunity to trap and destroy the bulk of the Syndicalist army in those hills
The center has held, and now presses ever forward