Scenario Preview, Part 4
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
When I first conceived Panzer Grenadier: Afrika 1944, I knew that I wanted the modernized Afrika Korps to fight both the Americans and the British. That simply seemed like a fun thing to do, and I wanted the German player to have to deal with those Tiger-killing Sherman Fireflies, Archers and towed 17-pounders.
Liberation 1944 also provides swarms of tan-colored Sherman and Cromwell tanks, plus plenty of Churchill infantry tanks and all manner of “funnies” – special flame-throwing or bomb-tossing tanks. That would help create some of the massed tank battles I wanted in the new book, so we had to have the British.
Let’s look at their part in Afrika 1944:
I Came to Casablanca for the Waters
While the Americans came ashore south of Casablanca, the British landed to the north of the city. Two British infantry divisions initially hit the beaches, with an airborne brigade parachuting behind them and an armoured division landing on the sand the next day and two tank brigades following through the port of Casablanca. The Allied invasion plan called for the British corps to drive up the coastal highway toward the colonial capital of Rabat while the Americans moved inland to protect their open right flank.
The Allies had hoped to make good progress before the Axis could react, but that came to naught when an Italian armored division moved swiftly from its garrison at Rabat to attack the newly-landed British even as an Italian motorized division blocked the road northward. There would be no rapid breakout from the beaches.
Teatime with Ariete
The British landings north of Casablanca faced an immediate and sharp reaction from the Italian 132nd “Ariete” Armored Division, which struck at the first columns moving out of the beachhead. Many of the troops on the ground had been present two years previously when the two divisions fought one another for control of the crucial passes of the central Sinai Peninsula.
The first clash saw the Italians halt the British advance and inflict heavy casualties on their forward brigade. These men had met before, but in their last battles Ariete’s tanks had been little better than tin cans. With weapons fit for Italy’s best division, the carristi now made for a formidable opponent.
We open with a large meeting engagement, with Ariete’s new German-designed against the Shermans (including the deadly Fireflies) of 1st Armoured Division. Both sides are very mobile, and both sides are very well-armed.
The Axis command blocked the coastal road leading from Casablanca to the capital of Rabat with an Italian infantry division, supported by Moroccan colonial troops. The Italians had been liberally supplied with anti-tank weapons, but only those of Italian manufacture. They would have to suffice against the modern new tanks of the re-fitted British armoured regiments.
The Italian North African divisional tables of organization emphasized automatic weapons and anti-tank capability, assigning heavy machine guns and 47mm anti-tank guns at the company level. That gave them a great deal of firepower, but the 47mm gun could not stop the heavily-armored Churchill infantry tanks and the defense against them would depend on the very capable 90mm anti-aircraft guns.
Italian infantry, including a brigade of Moroccan colonials, face a British tank attack featuring slow-moving but almost indestructible infantry-support tanks. The Italians have a couple of batteries of deadly 90mm anti-aircraft guns in a ground-support role, so those tanks just might turn out to be destructible. I proved unable to resist using the scenario title.
The crack 21st Panzer Division moved quickly southward from its cantonments in Spanish Morocco to assault the growing British beachhead north of Casablanca. For once the German Luftwaffe followed through and provided air cover for the move, and the panzer division suffered minimal losses during the re-deployment. The British knew the Germans were coming, but did not expect the sheer weight of heavy metal they brought with them.
The British paras had dropped on the first day of the invasion, finding little opposition behind the beachhead. They had been inserted into the line as infantry, and met the brunt of the first German attack with their expected aplomb. The German advance had been halted, and now the British would take up the offensive again.
British paratroopers, supported by Churchill heavy tanks and some mobile 17-pounder guns, face a counter-attack by a German panzer division with plenty of good armor and a handful of Tiger tanks. The Paras have sky-high morale, so to speak, but Rommel’s boys are ready for a fight, too and they have crushing artillery superiority.
The Afrika Korps’ infantry had been fully motorized in the years since the fall of France, and well-supplied with anti-tank guns. The “PAKfront” tactic had been met in the Western Desert, but never with such devastating weaponry. The British would have to find a way through the interlocking fields of fire to keep the advance moving.
The powerful German anti-tank guns shredded the light-weight Cromwell medium tanks, but the ponderous and thick-skinned Churchill proved far more difficult to stop. The British ground forward, steadily knocking out the anti-tank positions through infantry assaults aided by the “Funnies” of 79th Armoured Brigade and waves of close-support fighter-bombers now operating out of Casablanca.
This time it’s the Germans defending against a British tank attack, with masses of Cromwells and Churchills trying to advance into the teeth of the big new anti-tank guns (and well-armed tank destroyers) of the upgraded Afrika Korps. They’re going to need lots of pluck (and the clouds of airplanes they’ve brought to the party).
As the British approached Rabat, Axis resistance grew even tougher. Twenty-First Panzer Division had taken serious losses, but depots in Algeria had so far made them good. The British were well-supplied themselves, with plenty of additional tanks stockpiled in the Canaries or brought directly from the factories in the United States. Both sides would have to dig deep into their reserves.
The Sherman and Cromwell tanks lacked the armor to stand up to the powerful German tank guns; the British 17-pounder claimed more than its share of German vehicles but only some of the British tanks had this weapon. The Desert Rats suffered heavy losses among their Sherman and Cromwell regiments, but the Royal Air Force dominated the skies and made the panzers pay for their success.
It’s a big armored meeting engagement – outside of this book, we’d have to call it a huge scenario with 35 British tanks taking on 37 German ones. The Germans have the bigger guns and thicker armor; the British have Hawker Typhoons.
Grave of the Fireflies
Not every tank battle in Morocco featured hundreds of machines on each side. Smaller, equally intense battles could have just as great an impact on the outcome of the campaign. After the fall of Rabat, a British armored task force sought to interfere with the Axis withdrawal. They did not expect the retreating column to be able to strike back quite so effectively.
A close-range, brutal fight resulted in the loss of about half of the tanks on either side as well as almost all of the hapless Moroccan infantry. The retreating Germans gave only scant assistance to their Italian allies, and even less to those allies’ colonial henchmen. Even so, all of the Axis divisions reached the new defensive line in north-western Morocco almost intact, even as new formations crossed the Mediterranean to assist in a counter-offensive.
An Axis convoy of Tiger tanks and truck-borne Moroccan infantry is ambushed by British Sherman Fireflies. These Fireflies can sting, but with the dark North African night limiting visibility this is going to be a close-range, brutal fight. During daylight the Tigers would squash the Fireflies like lightning bugs, but these deadly insects have a chance here to get very close.
And that’s Chapter Four, which means we’re all done.
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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. Leopold is currently in print.