Black SS Pieces
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
I hate Nazis.
I've written that phrase a number of times in Daily Content and in the introductions to our books, and I still enjoy throwing those three words on the screen. Growing up around survivors of their evil, I learned very early just what their symbols meant. Many years later, as a newspaper reporter I earned a spot on "hit list" of one of the more despicable American neo-Nazi groups. One group threatened me with legal action for calling them "neo" — this offended them, they asserted, because they were the real thing.
Back in an earlier time, wargaming as a hobby included a fairly disturbing element of what can only be described as Nazi worship. It was never as common as later tales would have it, but it definitely did exist and was every bit as repulsive as one might imagine. Our trade group, the Game Manufacturers Association, has strict rules about the display of Nazi paraphernalia that date to that period — and they probably need to show a little more vigilance in enforcing them at their conventions and tradeshows. Lou Zocchi, the industry's grand old man and a decorated World War II fighter pilot, fought and won a draining libel lawsuit over his stand against Nazi symbols.
By the mid-1970s, someone had established a graphic standard of showing Waffen SS units as black with white lettering. I'm not sure exactly where it first appeared — I've heard different tales — but the reason why is pretty clear. In those days, the four-color printing process gave you two "colors" for free: black and white. Each color you used cost more, from one to four. Some graphic designers became extremely adept at producing seemingly colorful counter sheets using only one or two colors beyond the two free ones or what was then called "color of the day." If some other huge job was running using a lot of one color, you might also get that one for free and so pink and reflex blue became standard in many games.
So black-and-white counters added nothing to your color costs, and that explains why the scheme was used at all. But how it became associated with the Waffen SS, Germany's criminal gang of Nazi enforcers, is much less clear. It probably has some psychological underpinning of black = evil, but by the time I was playing wargames in high school, the association was definitely very strong that the black units were the SS. And in most of those games, there was no particular reason for the SS to have its own color scheme. But they did anyway.
When we founded Avalanche Press in 1994, I made the conscious decision that we would never use Nazi symbols in our games. And we've held to that, even sending the warehouse boys through the stacks with India-Ink pens to wipe out a swastika snuck in by a box designer. By the time our Panzer Grenadier series launched at the end of the last century, we could print in any color combination we could devise. And I decided that we would not use the standard black for the SS; actually, I decided not to put them in the games at all.
Eventually we did, with a camouflage scheme to set them apart from German Army units. Because the SS are often under special rules (usually involving some form of battlefield cowardice) and have different morale levels than the regular Army (general lower), they do need to have a distinguishing look. I did not want to give them the "Nazi" black-and-white scheme.
But since then, many gamers have asked for them in that pattern, and my views have altered. For one thing, these are just little squares of colored, laminated cardboard. The black scheme has little to do with Nazi Germany; it's a game publishing idea. German situation maps made during the war do often use black ink for SS units (with blue for regular Army, red for enemies, green for allies). Otherwise, it's a tradition out of the dawn of wargaming. When we asked for feedback on new counter sets, the black SS units were far and away the leading choice.
And so we have the Black SS book: along with 30 new scenarios, there are 165 die-cut and mounted pieces in a new color scheme. It reproduces every SS unit and leader from three games: Elsenborn Ridge, Beyond Normandy and Road to Berlin. If you don't like the black scheme, you don't need them. If you like it and want to see the SS get crushed in the most visible form possible, it just plugs right in. Here's what it includes:
Panzer Grenadier players like tanks. All three of the games covered by this set feature SS panzer divisions, and these units had top priority for new weapons. And so the Panther tank (Pz V in some games) is a fairly common game piece, and with its good balance of speed, firepower and protection it's a very valuable one. In this set they're all called "Panther" — use these also for the Pz V of Road to Berlin.
The Tiger tank rarely appeared as part of a panzer division's organic tank component, instead equipping independent heavy tank battalions. The set includes seven examples of the Tiger I (Pz VIe in its first appearance in the series, but all the SS pieces have been called "Tiger"). There are also eight Tiger II pieces, enough to equip your own heavy tank battalion. That's a few more of each than the games themselves require, but there were a handful of extra spaces on the sheet after all three games had received their allotment of counters so we used them for extra tanks.
Despite the fame of the Panther and Tiger, it was the PzKw IV (known to American tankers as the "Mark Four") that formed the bulk of German tank strength in 1944 and 1945. Two models appear in the set, the Pz IVF2 that introduced the long-barreled 75mm gun, and the well-balanced Pz IVH.
I'm not sure why the StuGIIIH is in Beyond Normandy at all — in other games, we call this vehicle the StuH42, which is not only its proper designation, it's also a lot easier to tell apart from the much more common StuGIIIG on the counter. I left the name alone, since the scenario book calls it by the odd designation. In addition, there are also a couple of examples of the StuGIV, a very similar vehicle but built on the hull of the Pz IV rather than the Pz III. All of these vehicles represent assault guns, turretless tanks designed to provide close-range artillery support to the infantry but sometimes pressed into the tank role as well.
Related to them are the tank destroyers, either similar vehicles caryring a high-velocity gun in a low, armored hull without a turret (like the Hetzer) or a large-caliber gun mounted behind a shield on a tank chassis with the turret removed (like the Marder III). The Waffen SS don't have quite as many of these vehicles as the regular Army counter mixes usually include, but that's because their formations are better-supplied with actual tanks.
With their direct-fire strength of 7, SS GREN ("grenadier") infantry have one of the highest firepower ratings of any infantry found in the Panzer Grenadier system. Like their Army equivalents, the SS grenadiers suffer a greater drop in firepower when they lose a step, as they rely heavily on their automatic weapons and have fewer men behind the number than is the case for American, British or Soviet infantry units.
SS machine-gunners also have an extraordinarily high direct-fire rating, since all of their weapons are the awesome MG42 (Army units represent a mix of the MG42 and the older but still lethal MG34). There are usually fewer of them in a given scenario than might be found with an Army unit, as the SS fielded somewhat fewer of these platoons on its organizational charts.
The bumbling bloodthirsty bozos portrayed in Sinister Forces went to war with a variety of cast-off and foreign-made weapons, as the units were never intended to serve in front-line combat. For police duties and mass murder, their Czech or French arms sufficed quite well.
But by 1944, the first-line SS divisions portrayed in the three games covered by Black SS had first-line equipment as well. They have a higher allotment of useful weaponry like the 20mm anti-aircraft gun, and unlike their comrades in the regular Army they're likely to actually have them on hand. Like the Army, SS infantry gets a lot of its firepower from its mortar platoons, and they have a good selection of both French-designed 81mm medium mortars and the heavy 120mm mortar copied from a Soviet model.
Armored Cars and Special Vehicles
SS recon units were well-supplied with armored cars, and they are here, starting with superfan Jay Townsend's favorite vehicle, the SdKfz 234/2 "Puma." I'm not sure why we didn't just call it "Puma" instead of using the confusing German alphanumeric. The Puma has a long-barreled 50mm gun and it's a formidable opponent for Allied armored cars, but it is no match for a real tank. Strangely, I see that its direct fire rating is not the same in every game; you can treat these as having the preferable numbers (different game designers gave it different numbers, so either one is "correct").
There are also armed halftracks, with either anti-tank or anti-aircraft guns; the latter are formidable against enemy infantry. And the SS have the self-propelled "Wespe" 105mm howitzer, very useful as long as you keep it out of range of the enemy.
Each leader in the Black SS set bears a small designation indicating the game in which the piece should be used. Some appear in more than one game. In general, the SS leaders in Beyond Normandy are very good, those in Elsenborn Ridge less so, and those in Road to Berlin less than that.
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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.