Here’s the Story
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Panzer Grenadier: Afrika 1944 takes place in an alternative history, one in which Germany attacked and defeated the Soviet Union in the spring of 1940, more than a year earlier than the Axis struck east in our actual history. France fell two years later while the Germans proceeded to build a fleet to challenge the Royal Navy.
By 1944, the war had turned against the Axis. American aid sustained Britain, and the U.S. Navy helped sweep the Kriegsmarine from the Atlantic even as it engaged in a life-or-death struggle with the Japanese. The Allied powers sought to take the war back to Europe, and targeted German-occupied Morocco as the first point in which to begin the liberation.
While some planners, chiefly Americans, pointed out the vast distance between Casablanca and Berlin, others, chiefly British, noted that this same distance put the former French colony at the end of a very long supply line. The Allies could force their way ashore and fight the German garrison without having to face large-scale reinforcements until they had had a chance to consolidate their beachheads.
French Morocco had been occupied by the Axis in the wake of France’s 1941 defeat. Ports and airfields there provided protection to the Canary Islands, held by Axis ally Spain. By 1944, the Axis garrison consisted of five German Army divisions, two of them armored, and three Italian divisions, one of them likewise an armored division.
German officials took over administration of the colony, leaving the Sultan and his court in place as had the French. Jews lost civil rights, but Sultan Mohammed V’s determined stand as protector of all of his people ruled out the deportation of his 250,000 Jewish subjects. The Moroccan regiments raised by the French Army passed to German control; several regiments were transferred to the occupied Soviet Union to reduce opportunities for desertion.
Securing Morocco for the Allies would represent a first step toward re-opening the western end of the Mediterranean Sea. Gibraltar had been under siege for months, fighting off an assault attempt in late 1943, and remained in British hands. But air and naval forces based on either side of the Strait had made it impossible for Allied fleets to enter the Middle Sea, even as the British light forces and aircraft based at the Rock barred passage to the Italian fleet. Royal Navy destroyers and submarines fought their way to Gibraltar bearing vitally-needed supplies, while German bombers and artillery pounded the fortress day and night.
But even that first step had preliminaries. Taking the Spanish-ruled Canary Islands would deny the bases there to the Axis, and in turn provide the Allies with air bases to support the invasion of Morocco and allow long-range bombers to support Gibraltar. The U.S. Atlantic Fleet’s Marine division had, like its Pacific counterpart, been practicing amphibious assault techniques and developing specialized landing craft and vehicles since 1941. They would spearhead an invasion of the Canaries, with U.S. Army troops following up the initial landings.
The Marines stormed ashore on the islands of La Palma and Tenerife in the spring of 1944. The small Spanish garrison had been mostly replaced by German troops, with some armor support, and they strongly resisted the invasion. The U.S. Navy, with British assistance, sealed off the islands from reinforcements and the Marines and Army eventually subdued the defenders after weeks of hard fighting.
Even as the campaign’s last stages played out, American B-17 and B-24 heavy bombers arrived and began flying missions against the German and Spanish airfields and artillery positions ringing Gibraltar. They also struck airfields and lines of communication in Morocco and Algeria, pounding railyards and bridges on the line leading eastward to Algeria. American and British troops and tanks assembled on Tenerife for the next stage of the campaign, the invasion of Morocco.
The Canaries campaign continued into the summer and by July the islands had been secured. The Allied buildup continued at a rapid pace; German and Italian submarines tried to interrupt the flow of troops and supplies but made little impact. By late September the Allies had brought eight divisions to the islands, withdrawn the Marines and brought in an additional two divisions to garrison the Canaries.
The next phase began in early October. German air reconnaissance had detected the buildup in the Canaries, but their analysts believed the force remained too small for an extended campaign on the mainland. No invasion would come until more divisions had been staged to the Canaries, and the movement of transports and their supporting warships to the islands would provide ample warning.
The Allies surprised the Axis by bringing their invasion convoys directly from the west coast of Britain and the east coast of the United States to Morocco. The divisions already in the Canaries formed the second wave, not the first. Two American divisions landed just south of Casablanca, followed by two more also brought directly from Hampton Roads. Likewise, two British divisions landed just to the north of Casablanca, followed by two more landing directly from British ports.
Taking the defenders by surprise, the Allies quickly secured Casablanca after subduing the German and Moroccan troops defending the sector. Tanks and heavy equipment came ashore, and the Allies began their advance. Then the Axis struck back, with well-equipped armored divisions leading the counter-attack. Heavy fighting marked the American attempted to expand the beachhead, and the British drive up the coast toward the colony’s capital of Rabat.
The Allies had not yet encountered the new German weapons prepared for this new phase of the war: Tiger I and II heavy tanks, Panther and Panzer IVH medium tanks, plus rocket launchers and heavy anti-tank guns. Their Sherman and Cromwell medium tanks had been considered more than sufficient to handle the German tanks seen in 1942 during the last stages of the defense of Egypt and the Suez Canal. These new war machines, operated by well-trained crews, threatened to throw the invaders back into the sea.
Hard-won experience taught the Allies how to counter the supposedly invincible weapons. The big tanks had powerful guns and thick armor, but were very slow and had little defense against the squadrons of American and British fighter-bombers that ruled the North African sky. They could be defeated by the smaller, faster Allied tanks if they worked their way around their flanks.
Steadily, the Allies made progress at the cost of far heavier casualties than their planners had anticipated. What the U.S. Army lacked in combat experience, it more than balanced with its excellence in logistics, as it proved almost impossible to knock an American unit out of combat for more than a few days before replacements arrived for its lost men and weapons. German and Italian losses could not so easily be made good, and the relentless Allied advance assured that damaged Axis tanks would not be recovered and repaired.
By December 1944, the Allies had secured almost all of Morocco including the Spanish-ruled strip along the northern coast. The Axis had been ejected from their bases there, bringing relief to Gibraltar. Under the cover of Allied air power, minesweepers began to clear the Strait of Gibraltar to allow Allied fleets into the Mediterranean. On Christmas Day the Axis struck back with their so-called Atlas Offensive. But that’s another story.
Design Notes: This is the background story for the two dozen scenarios of Panzer Grenadier: Afrika 1944. Normally, I don’t like a Panzer Grenadier book to draw on one, or at most two other games for its maps and parts. But I really, really wanted to have the Afrika Korps fight the U.S. Marines. Afrika 1944 is a strange product that’s designed to appeal to the hard-core player, those most likely to own or have access to more games, so I rationalized that this once we could break that rule because adding Marines added unbounded coolness to the scenario set. The Desert Fox is no match for Chesty Puller.
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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.