Panzer Grenadier: 1940 The Fall of France
Scenario Preview, Part One
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
It’s long been my goal that the Panzer Grenadier game system cover many theaters of World War II, plus other conflicts that took place in the same time frame. We’ve covered the well-known and the not-so-well known, and one well-known campaign I long wanted to include in the series, the 1940 German conquest of France, finally became a reality thanks to ace designer Philippe Leonard with 1940: The Fall of France.
At the heart of any Panzer Grenadier game are the scenarios: you can't tell the full story of a war or campaign with a dozen "typical action" pureed vignettes and call it a day's hard work. Philippe has provided as fine a set as any in our lineup, with 50 battles from the opening clashes in Belgium through the last stand in the French Alps. Here’s a look at the first set of them:
A Beautiful Morning
10 May 1940,
The emblematic Grossdeutschland Regiment, pride of Nazi Germany, obviously had to lead the way through the Belgian Ardennes. Convinced of their manifest destiny as rulers of the world, the forward elements of IRGD sang a marching tune as they entered the village of Sirvy on the morning of May 10th. Surprising a French motorcycle platoon that surrendered with nary a shot, they kept on singing as they marched to take the bridges across the Semois River at Etalle.
Hauptmann Felsch was mortally wounded in the assault on the barricade at the main bridge. The attack stalled so Commandant Föst took over for him and renewed the attack, but then French motorized troops appeared to the north of the Germans and confusion reigned on the battlefield. Eventually the Germans regained some momentum, damaging or destroying several French armored cars and forcing the rest to withdraw. But then Föst took a bullet to the head and died, stunning the Germans and stalling the attack again. The arrival of German tanks finally tipped the balance in their favor and let them secure the town and bridges, but only after a delay of several hours.
This is a small scenario, just one board and a handful of units on each side. The Germans have sky-high morale, some artillery support and a rather worthless tank platoon that might eventually show up. All of the Germans are mounted on trucks, so they can get close to their objectives pretty fast: seizing the bridge hex, getting over the major river and taking town hexes on the opposite bank. Try to stop them is a detachment of French motorized cavalry, backed by three platoons of the very good P178 Panhard armored car. Indifferent French morale makes what should be a tough defense vulnerable.
10 May 1940,
Second Cavalry Escadron of the 5th Regiment of Cuirassiers was scrambled at short notice and went into Belgium under-strength with only one officer on hand. They were to set up a first line of defense in a small village and hold it at all costs. As shots rang out to the east in Etalle the cavalrymen sent their horses to the rear, and waited.
Grossdeutschland Regiment immediately took casualties when daring officers scouting ahead of their column were shot by the French. The cavalrymen repulsed two successive attacks before German tank and artillery reinforcements blasted through them and set the town on fire. Small firefights raged among the burning buildings thereafter, and some Frenchmen eventually escaped but most of their horses did not.
This is another clash between the Grossdeutschland Regiment and dismounted French cavalry. The French get to set up hidden, and they’re going to need that edge as the Germans have all the advantages: morale, numbers, mobility and artillery support. The Germans have a steep set of victory conditions, though, so the French can definitely put a kink ion their knockwurst.
Pan, dans la gueule à Jean!
10 May 1940,
In the southern part of the Belgian Ardennes, French cavalry were the first line of defense on the first day of the German attack. Several squadrons of the 5th Cuirassiers were scattered in small villages near Etalle and waited for the Germans to appear. A forward platoon sent to the Ste-Marie railway station was quickly overrun, but at the village of Poncelle the cavalry held well-prepared positions and decided to show their valor.
The first German tanks were quickly destroyed by a French anti-tank gun, and as soon as the German infantry came into view it was “Pan, dans la gueule à Jean!” (Eat this, Kraut!”). But the German ground attacks grew in intensity along with their artillery fire, and soon the French couldn’t see their enemy due to smoke from burning buildings and dust kicked up by shellfire. French artillery support remained unavailable, and it soon became clear that the brave cavalrymen couldn’t hope to resist the German onslaught. They left the village as darkness fell.
Finally, the French get mounted cavalry! Unfortunately, this is also the scenario where the German start to deploy real tanks. Once again it’s a delaying action, with a small force of dismounted French cavalry trying to hold up a German tank-infantry force. But this time the cavalry comes riding to the rescue! Will it be enough? Tune in and find out!
Wagram and Tilsit
11 May 1940,
Suxy, South of Neufchâteau, Belgium
On May 10th, the 1st Brigade de Cavalerie received the signal “Wagram and Tilsit,” which was their order to advance east into the Belgian Ardennes and up to the Semois River. As the brigade moved out they made no contact with the enemy, and the local Belgian populace came out to cheer them on. The Germans were actually farther to the east, having been delayed by elements of the 2nd Division Legere de Cavalerie and the Chasseurs Ardennais. Finally during the night of May 11, the French cavalry was ordered to move forward and establish a defensive line at the Vierre River near the village of Suxy. The first units arrived in the deep valley at 05:30 and dug in.
The Germans approaching Suxy encountered two French cavalry squadrons on the road but eliminated them quickly. They then advanced toward the bridge, but the French sappers blew it up before the Germans reached it. A long firefight ensued between the opposing forces on opposite banks of the river, but the French were finally given the order to retreat that afternoon.
It’s another cavalry delaying action, with the French horsemen trying to hold up the Grossdeutschland along a major river. Once again the timely arrival of mounted reinforcements will determine who wins this day. Any scenario that lets you ride down Nazis is a good day’s gaming.
Through the Ardennes
11 May 1940,
between Marche and Rochefort, Belgium
At the outbreak of war, the Divisions Légères de Cavalerie were ordered into the Ardennes to delay any German advance there until Ninth Army’s infantry divisions could establish a strong defense along the Meuse River. But the cavalrymen badly misjudged German movements, expecting that it would take at least five days for the Germans to make their way through the forest. The rapid advance of the German motorized divisions caught the French forces off guard, and when they reached the Lomme River the French were not in a position to stop them.
At noon the motorcycle platoons and armored cars of the 1st Régiment d’Automitrailleuses clashed with the advance elements of Group Fürst, 7th Panzer Division near the Chavannes crossroad. Several armored cars were damaged on both sides before the French fell back towards the Lomme. German attacks all along the river line were putting French formations in distress, and when word came that the 4th Division Légères de Cavalerie had retreated the French sent in some anti-tank platoons to defend the river bridges while the engineers worked to blow them up. The maneuver worked, and the bridges were blown successfully after all French units had retreated behind the river.
Now we get into some major action: four boards with the lead elements of a panzer division crashing into a well-supported force of dismounted cavalry backed with a lavish assortment of machine guns, mortars, anti-tank guns and armored cars. The French are holding a river line; the Germans are trying to cross it. German tanks are numerous, and that’s about the best that can be said of them – the French armored cars will shoot them to pieces, given half a chance. The Germans are better supplied with artillery but have to seize a serious bridgehead if they want to win.
First Armor Clash
12 May 1940,
In the early hours of May 12th, 4th Panzer Division advanced quickly through the Belgian plains and up to the Hannut-Huy road. Meanwhile in the village of Crehen, elements of 3rd Division Légère Mécanique had taken-up positions but were unaware that the Germans had gotten so close so fast. The first tank battle on the Western Front began in a mildly-undulating landscape seemingly made for AFVs.
Within a few minutes, the quiet village became an inferno when about 50 panzers charged its streets. Relying on outdated tactics, Capt. Ste-Marie Perrin kept his 20 Hotchkiss tanks in fixed positions, from which they took out a few light Panzers. But then the heavier tanks attacked them frontally while the remaining light panzers attacked from the flanks at very close range. The Dragoons broke and ran around 11:00, leaving the tanks alone. Ste-Marie Perrin was killed in his tank and 11 out of the 20 Hotchkiss tanks were put out of action, with total German losses at five panzers destroyed. In the afternoon, both sides abandoned Crehen and its smoking streets full of war relics.
And now we get a tank battle! The Germans have a huge mass of tanks trying to drive south on a narrow corridor; the French have about a third as many but 10 of the 13 German tank platoons are the nearly-useless PzKw I tankettes and PzKw II light tanks. The Germans have more flexibility (not needing tank leaders) but are unaccompanied by infantry. Superior German morale will help, and they have artillery support where the French have none.
Race to the Meuse
12 May 1940, between Marche and Dinant, Belgium
On the evening of May 11th, General Corap ordered the vanguard elements of the Divisions Legeres de Cavalerie in the Ardennes to fall back to the Meuse. The size and power of the enemy was simply too much for the French horsed cavalry divisions, and they were in danger of being encircled. The withdrawal was carried out early on May 12th, with mobile elements covering the retreat of the slower units.
The French infantry divisions on the Meuse were far from ready to hold the line at this stage, so the retreating units had to make a fighting withdrawal. Taking every possible advantage of the terrain, the dragons and chasseurs succeeded in slowing down the Germans so that the less-mobile French units could cross the Meuse in safety. Quite a few panzers were destroyed all along the different retreat routes, and a sole 25mm French AT gun claimed no less than 12 German tanks destroyed in one day. Around 1600 the bridges at Dinant and Bouvignes were blown within view of the first approaching Panzers, just after the last French elements had crossed to safety.
This is a huge scenario, seven boards laid out to form a long east-west corridor. The French are trying to get safely off the west edge; the Germans are chasing them. The French have surprisingly good morale for such a situation, and artillery support: this is not a panicked flight. They also have three batteries of the very good 47mm APX anti-tank gun, which will shred the German tanks if given a chance. The French player will have to decide carefully when he wants to run, and when he wants to turn and fight.
Rommel Crosses the Meuse
13 May 1940, between Anhée and Houx, north of Dinant, Belgium
Rommel’s “ghost division” beat 5th Panzer Division to the Meuse, though not by much. Oberst Werner of 5th Panzer had come very close to capturing the bridge at Yvoir, but a few Belgian engineers blew it up just in time. At Houx, some kilometers farther south, a motorcycle unit discovered a small lock with an intact foot bridge linking both banks of the river to a small island. These troops crossed the river at night on May 12th (leaving their motorcycles behind) and set up defensive positions on the west bank. At dawn the next day, the main German assault across the Meuse began.
From the crossing point at Houx, German infantry slowly infiltrated the French lines and sowed confusion among the newly-arrived 39th Infantry Regiment. Meanwhile, just south of Yvoir, Oberst Werner made an amphibious assault across the river but was beaten back with heavy losses by French artillery and machinegun fire. Most of the boats were destroyed, and 5th Panzer Division had to no choice but to brave heavy French artillery fire and concentrate its efforts on the Houx foot bridge. Eventually the already-weakened French 39th Infantry Regiment collapsed in the face of intensifying German infantry attacks, and by the end of the day the German bridgehead was deep enough to support a full-scale assault the following day.
This time the board’s small, but the forces are (relatively) huge: roughly four German battalions (with tanks and support weapons) are trying to force a river crossing against three battalions of French troops backed by artillery. This is a really fun scenario: there’s not much subtlety as big stacks of infantry brawl away at the river’s edge. With only two boards in play there’s no space for dipsy-doodling: the Germans are going to have to come right at the French.
That covers the first eight scenarios of 1940: The Fall of France. Part Two looks at the next eight including the first of many actions at Stonne and Gembloux.
Don’t wait to put 1940: The Fall of France on your game table! Join the Gold Club and find out how to get it before anyone else!
Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.