By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
A long time ago, we printed a set of special playing pieces for our Gold Club, with different variants that we’d run as Daily Content. Most of these were for a pair of Panzer Grenadier expansions: one adding more Italian trucks, and one putting German-designed tanks in Royal Italian Army colors.
In those days we had little control over the size of the print runs we had to make, and so we printed thousands of them. The Gold Club has never numbered in the thousands (maybe over its lifetime, but never in a single year). We still have plenty of them, and I’d considered building a small Panzer Grenadier supplement around them – since they already exist, it’s a case of either using them or trashing them, and the latter’s just wasteful.
Yet we already have Blackshirt Division on the way, a Panzer Grenadier supplement with 88 pieces displaying the Italian Blackshirt “M” Armored Division in Panzer Grenadier format, plus 10 scenarios for their use. We originally issued this as a special limited edition for the Gold Club only, with laser-cut pieces and a comb-bound book. The new edition features a book like our other supplements, and die-cut, silky-smooth playing pieces.
Panzer Grenadier is a pretty broad series, but I doubt it has room for two supplements built around Italian armor that never actually existed. So we’re going to add these 42 pieces (old-fashioned, semi-glossy die-cut) to Blackshirt Division: nine PzKpfw IIIJ (with the long-barreled 50mm gun), eight PzKpfw IVF2 9with the long-barreled 75mm gun), one Tiger, nine license-built Renault FT17 light tanks and 15 truck pieces (with a wagon on the other side).
With more pieces, we’re going to need more scenarios, so we’ll add eight more and let the Royal Army fight the Allies, fight the Blackshirts and fight the Germans. That brings the total count for Blackshirt Division to 130 pieces and 18 scenarios, which makes for a substantially heftier product than originally offered. We’ll increase the price slightly to cover all of this additional gaming goodness, from $24.99 to $29.99.
When you’re making up a war, you might as well make up one to suit your game-design objectives. World War II provides a wide variety of potential Panzer Grenadier scenarios, and some campaigns result in a large number of interesting clashes taking place in a very short span of time and in a very narrow area (see Fire in the Steppe). All of the scenarios in Blackshirt Division are made up out of whole cloth (up to a point; the Allied formations are those actually present in Tunisia and in the sector where the action is said to take place), so they can be crafted to maximize the stuff that Panzer Grenadier players want: tank-on-tank action.
The Royal Italian Army’s 131st “Centauro” Armored Division went to Libya in August 1942, retreated into Tunisia and fought against the Allies until the Axis position collapsed in May 1943, seeing action at El Guittar and Kasserine among other famous battles. They went to war with the standard Italian medium tanks of the day: M13/40 and the very similar M14/41, with a 47mm main gun, inadequate armor and low speed.
Italy’s Fiat-Ansaldo combine purchased a license to build the excellent Daimler-Benz DB.601 water-cooled aircraft engine in 1940, but apparently did not pursue a tank license until 1943, when they bought a license and machine tools to build the Daimler-Benz Panther tank. Daimler-Benz also produced the PzKpfw III, and given the close relationship between the firms likely would have sold the license had the Italians sought it. But then Fiat would have had to pay a fee for each tank produced, which was not the case for the crapulent but more profitable M13/40.
In the revised Blackshirt Division, Centauro goes into action with modern tanks, and becomes a formidable force now that it possesses vehicles that can stand up to the Allied Grants and Shermans.
If I’d had it to do over, I’d have given the Royal Army a more noticeably different set of tanks than those fielded by the Blackshirt Division. Since the Blackshirt order of battle is determined by the actual equipment issued to or planned for the M Division, changing the Blackshirt lineup to introduce some variety isn’t really an option. So we have a lot fo PzKpfw IV tanks with the “long” 75mm gun (though not exactly meant to be the same model, they’re identical in game terms). The Blackshirts have PzKpfw III tanks with a short-barreled 75mm guns for infantry support; the Royal Army’s tanks have “long” 50mm guns to fight enemy tanks.
There are a lot of tanks included (18 apiece for the Royal Army and the Blackshirts, plus nine ancient light tanks in Royal Army colors). The Blackshirts get a full array of infantry, transport and support weapons; the Royal Army has to draw on those provided in An Army at Dawn (roughly a battalion each of Bersaglieri and regular infantry, plus supporting engineers, machine gunners, anti-tank guns and such).
Adding roughly half again as many pieces to Blackshirt Division adds a great deal more combinations (since the Blackshirts and the Army can fight each other, as they both seem to have really wished). Panzer Grenadier fans are less enamored of a world that never was than those of our naval games, so a successful supplement based on something that never happened needs a couple of things. First, it should have a firm relationship with historical possibility. We have that: the Blackshirt Division existed, just not in time for the Tunisian campaign, while Fiat-Ansaldo punted its license opportunity rather than trim its profits. And you need compelling game play; the flexibility of adding the Royal Army and its could-have-been tanks gives the scenario set even more unusual battles for you to fight.
It’s a good upgrade for Blackshirt Division, and from our perspective a pretty easy one. We were never going to be able to sell a second Italian tanks supplement, but tossing out the pieces would have been wasteful and wrong. Instead they get to be played with – the life’s goal of every game piece – and you get to have more fun.
Don’t wait to put Blackshirt Division on your game table! Join the Gold Club and find out how to add it to your collection!
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 faithful dog, Leopold.