Panzer Grenadier: 1940 The Fall of France
Scenario Preview, Part Five
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
The story began in Part One and continued in Part Two, Part Three and Part Four.
It’s an odd thing, to present history in the form of a game, and not easy to pull off. Not that many game designers can actually pull it off, but one of them is Philippe Léonard, designer of Panzer Grenadier: 1940, The Fall of France. He’s shown the story of the French Army’s fierce resistance and rapid collapse in the form of 50 scenarios, giving players the story of the campaign on their game table. A mere dozen scenarios, no matter how many times they’ve been played, cannot capture the breadth of such a major campaign.
Here’s the fifth segment of our look at Philippe’s fine work:
21 May 1940
West of the Mormal Forest, France
By the third week of May the situation in the Mormal Forest was a disaster. Since Rommel’s raid through the French lines towards the Sambre River, French units were scattered everywhere and panzers were rushing about in an orgy of breakthroughs and encirclements. Though ordered to clear the forest of Germans, the French commanders there knew that to be impossible and tried for an orderly withdrawal instead. Colonel Mesny gathered what forces he could and made his move in the middle of the night.
Colonel Mesny moved out with the lead French units at midnight and soon encountered enemy columns in the dark. Unexpected encounters with enemy minefields and anti-tank obstacles slowed his progress further, and the now-alerted 4th Panzer Division began to send infantry, engineers, tanks, artillery and even FlaK units to intercept the French move. At 0600 the avant-garde had reached the Escaut River with only minimal losses, but fighting at the rear had become horrible. A company of Moroccans was sent back to help their comrades but was blocked by 88mm and panzer fire between Louvignies and Englefontaine. At 0745 the Tunisians and Moroccans decided to force their way through to the west, and assaulted the German defenses while singing a prayer for the dead. They must have known their fate, because their attack was crushed by panzers, machine guns and AA guns, and most of them were killed or captured. Only small, scattered groups eventually reached the Escaut during the night of May 21.
This is a huge scenario, with six maps in play and a large force of crack Tunisian and Moroccan colonials squaring off with a German mechanied force of equally high morale. The French are trying to force their way across the long axis of the board, and the Germans show up from various edges to try to cut them off and stop them
Fighting the Fire
23 May 1940
West of Stonne, France
A period of relative quiet came to Stonne after the two-day battle there, and the French set about reinforcing its western flank: the Mont Dieu woods line along the Ardennes canal. Reinforcements included the 1st Hussards, the 8th Chasseurs and two regiments of the 1st Brigade de Cavalerie. The expected German attack on the canal line finally arrived early on the foggy morning of May 23. The German objective was to encircle the Stonne position and force a Major French withdrawal. Two infantry regiments moved toward Hill 276 on a 2-kilometer front, attacking the 1st Hussards after a nasty initial bombardment.
Defending the canal line was particularly difficult given the marshy ground and poor visibility. To the north, the Landrevie Escadron group held firm on the heights of the Mont-Dieu woods, cutting down more than 130 German soldiers advancing on their position. But the 1st Hussards were cut in two by the sheer weight of the assault, and another French group to the south was overrun. Elsewhere along the river and around Tannay, small French groups continued to defend the bridges and tried to hold the line in advance of a hoped-for counterattack.
French cavalry with good morale and not much else are trying to stop a large German infantry force from forcing their way over a small river and passing through their positions. The Germans have a great deal of artillery to go with their advantages in numbers and morale. The French do have mobility, and they'd best be ready to use it.
23 May 1940,
Thulin, between Mons and Valenciennes, Belgium
The forward elements of the retreating Groupement André forced their way through Blaregnies, but the rest of the column got stuck there. The forward elements continued on toward Condé-sur-Escaut, but soon ran into units from the 260th and 269th Infantry Divisions. These were second- and fourth-wave units of relatively poor quality.
The firing started when the French reached the outskirts of the village of Thulin. French commanding officer, Lt. Col. Puccinelli, immediately pushed forward and took the village along with several German prisoners. The French then moved on to the railway 600 meters north of Thulin where German troops had formed a defensive line. The French attacked with fixed bayonets and gained the upper hand, but then German reinforcements arrived along with artillery support. The courageous French troops kept fighting but were soon overwhelmed, and Puccinelli was wounded two times and captured.
No one really wants to be here - both sides have low morale and not much artillery. Given the furia francese described above, maybe the French should have higher morale here. The French have to seize several town hexes before a huge wave of German reinforcements shows up to try to drive them back out.
The End of Groupement André
23 May 1940
Blaregnies, French border south of Mons, Belgium
Colonel André commanded 12th Régiment d’Artillerie Divisionnaire, and as the highest-ranking officer in Mauberge Sector he became overall commander there as the French units around him started disintegrating. His artillery batteries did their best to hold back the German advance so others could escape, but slowly Groupement André was forced to retreat as well. Abandonging the Boussois fort to its fate, he tried to get his troops across the Escaut River to relative safety. Unfortunately, the first leg of the way out was northward toward the Belgian border, and there he met the Germans again.
While entering Blaregnies the head of the French column encountered a German outpost, and with desperate energy the French pushed back the opposition and took the village. That night, Colonel André gave the order to escape to the west. Unfortunately, the German 1st Infantry had encircled Blaregnies in the darkness, and when the French encountered them Col. André ordered them to break out to the north and south. It was to no avail; André was killed in the initial encounter with the Germans, and by 0600 the Germans were ready to counterattack. Four hours later, with no ammunition left, the remaining French troops launched a bayonet charge in an attempt to exit the pocket to Valenciennes. The stunned Germans gave way at first, but with German reinforcements on the way it didn’t matter. Only small groups of French troops escaped.
Andre's groupement is in trouble: they're out-numbered, have no off-board artillery support (and not much on the board), and except for a small band of die-hards have pretty bad morale. The Germans have numbers, artillery and excellent morale. The French can't do much, and fortunately they don't have to in order to win.
23 May 1940
East of Tannay, France
The Germans made a breakthrough on the morning of the 23rd and took control of Hill 276 just east of Tannay. That gave them a jumping-off point from which to complete the encirclement of the French forces at Stonne, so the French threw in their last available reserves to drive the Germans off the hill. The hastily-planned initial attack was understrength and went nowhere, with the French losing most of their armored cars to German AT gunfire. But then at 1500 hours some twenty H39 tanks arrived, and the assault could begin in earnest.
French armor made the difference and the Germans soon began falling back. Losses were heavy for both sides, but the French had control of Hill 276 again by evening.
This may be the coolest scenario in all of Panzer Grenadier: a huge French motorcycle gang (a full dozen motorcycle platoons - no other scenario we've published comes close) is storming a German infantry regiment dug in amongst woods and hills. It's going to be a tough fight but . . . . a huge motorcycle gang! Who can resist?
Before the Stop Order
24 May 1940
Along the Aa Canal, southeast of Dunkirk
The trapped British and French troops at Dunkirk were preparing their evacuation behind whatever thin lines of defense they could muster. But the panzer divisions in the sector were exhausted and their supply lines badly overextended, so they could not hope to to strike the final blow. The Germans therefore released 1st Panzer Division from its task of reducing the defences at Calais and sent it eastward toward the canalized Aa River. At St-Nicolas and La Bistade (south of Gravelines) the canal was undefended except at the bridges, which were held by a collection of cavalry, infantry and old anti-aircraft trucks. Infantry Regiment Grossdeutschland (attached to 1st Panzer Division) had the task of establishing and consolidating a bridgehead on the Aa River. The first firefights erupted the night before Hitler’s order to stop the German attack on Dunkirk.
At dawn, the Germans attacked all along the canal line, which was the last big obstacle before Dunkirk itself. Some Germans attacked the bridges while others crossed the canal on small boats and hit the French in the flanks near St-Nicolas and La Bistade. The bridge defenders had no reserves to call on, but their mortars and autocannon slowed the Germans enough to allow for an orderly retreat despite heavy losses.
This is a small scenario, with the Grossdeutschland and their sky-high morale trying to force their way over the canal against a not-very-determined ragged band of French defenders. At least the game is short; otherwise Marianne would weep bitter tears over this battle.
Swamp Struggle, Day One
24 May 1940,
The Germans had begun infiltrating the marshy areas west of the Escaut River line near Roeulx and Bouchain. So on May 21st, the French 4th Infantry Division took over the Bouchain sector and began security operations. French observers spotted the Roeulx incursion from a high slag heap and stopped the Germans with mortar fire, but the swamps and woods around Bouchain afforded the Germans much more cover. So, the French infantry would have to go in and root them out.
Two German infantry companies had crossed the river in the morning mist, near the cement works bridge north of Bouchain. French and German patrols clashed shortly thereafter, with the French taking the worst of it and retreating. But German artillery support was poorly-coordinated, so once the French regrouped they were able to renew their assault and prevent the Germans from expanding their bridgehead at Bouchain. The situation was similar in the swamps to the south, with the German 28th Infantry Division establishing a bridgehead but unable to expand it due to French resistance. When substantial French reinforcements arrived around noon, the Germans suspended their assault and made plans to continue it the next day.
This is a big scenario, with the Germans advancing into swamp and forest against French defenders who almost equal them in numbers and firepower, though not in morale. The Germans have no armor support, while the French have a smidgen. This is going to be a long, tough battle for both sides.
Swamp Struggle, Day Two
25 May 1940,
Route Nationale 43 was the main road to the sea, and it ran straight through Bouchain. The German VIII Corps decided to crush French resistance there, so it sent in 43rd Infantry Regiment during the night to replace the exhausted 28th south of the town. With the artillery support problems finally resolved and some air support garnered as well, 84th Infantry Regiment renewed the attack in the morning with the 43rd following behind.
South of the city, the German infantry made good progress through the marshes and had pushed as far as Marquette by 1300 hours. The French committed their reserves at that point, and after hard fighting and heavy losses on both sides the Germans had to fall back. To the north, French troops held out all day long on the Boucheneuil-Roeulx road near Mastaing, and elsewhere they prevented German engineers from bringing artillery across the river. On that day at least, the French held the field.
This time the Germans have lined up a huge array of artillery, including some extra-heavy batteries, plus air support to try again. But the French have poured in infantry reinforcements and now actually outnumber the attackers.
Counterattack at Dunkirk
25 May 1940,
St-Georges, southeast of Gravelines
While the Germans were consolidating their bridgeheads across the Aa and resting after Hitler’s stop order, the French command at Dunkirk built up strong artillery support groups and ordered a counterattack against the small village of St-Georges to restore their lines.
The French counterattack started at 0900 hours and included artillery support and a handful of tanks. The unsupported German recon troops in the village were in no mood to trade shots with tanks, and left after calling in some artillery fire and air strikes that failed to stop the French. At noon the French infantry reached its main objective (the railway embankment dominating the surrounding landscape) and the Germans fell back to the bridge of St-Folquin. This small victory showed that the French High Command would keep defending Dunkirk to buy time for the escape from the Continent.
This time it's the Germans fielding a motorcycle gang, but not as big as the French one mentioned up above. The French are attacking them, and have a tank while the Germans have no anti-tank gun. The Germans are mobile and have better morale; the French have more artillery. Someday we have to publish a motorcycle-vs.-motorcycle scenario.
And that wraps part five of six.
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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.