The German Army Group South Ukraine stumbled back into Romania in the spring of 1944, having been roughly handled by the Soviet First, Second and Third Ukrainian Fronts. It could have been much worse – the Red Army concentrated on liberating Odessa rather than eliminating Axis forces.
The Soviet offensives into Romania between April and August 1944 are the theme of our Panzer Grenadier: Broken Axis game. The German Army is battered, but still has seasoned troops, veteran leaders and formidable weapons. Here’s a look at some of the German pieces found in the game.
The standard German GREN platoon is smaller than that of the early war years (the INF platoon in Panzer Grenadier terms), making up for the loss of manpower with an increase in automatic weapons. The Gewehr 43 semi-automatic rifle had begun to replace the bolt-action Mauser 1898; rather than re-equip entire units, the German Army issued some rifles to each platoon. At least on paper that was the plan, but inevitably some units got more of the new rifles and some got less. Also the very effective MG42 machine gun began to replace the MG34 as the squad automatic weapon. Manpower dropped from 45 to 32 men (though three of the men in the old platoon operated the useless 50mm mortar).
A German machine gun platoon served four weapons, divided into two sections. Three such platoons made up an infantry battalion’s machine-gun company. In the summer of 1944 – that is, right in the middle of our Broken Axis game – the arrangement changed to one platoon of six sections, with the other six sections parceled out to the rifle companies. Rather than try to work around that, or to account for the increased firepower, we decided long ago to stick with one German HMG platoon for the entire war and vary the number included in a scenario. In practice that’s given the German side the firepower we wanted them to have – in game design, simple is usually best.
German combat engineers, on the other hand, saw little change in their organization during the course of the war, at least not enough to show up at the scale of Panzer Grenadier. They saw a great deal of front-line combat, particularly once the German Army reduced its infantry divisions from nine battalions to seven.
The ubiquitous 75mm infantry gun continued in service right up until the end of the war, adding to the firepower of German infantry battalions. When German infantry regiments dropped from three battalions to two in 1943, they kept their company of six infantry guns at full strength (on paper, anyway), increasing the proportion of “pocket artillery” to rifles.
While statistics show that the American 105mm howitzer killed more enemy troops than any other weapon during World War II, the widely-used Brandt 81mm mortar was almost as deadly. The Germans adopted the weapon in 1934, with a design derived from the French-made Brandt mle 27/31 mortar.
From the start of the war, the German Army depended on the weapon, assigning six tubes to each infantry battalion (most armies only gave their battalions two medium mortars). Organizational charts wobbled between assigning all six to battalion headquarters and splitting them up with two to each rifle company. Some units appear to have received a double allotment of mortars and had both.
The 50mm PAK38 anti-tank gun had first been issued in 1941, when it proved very effective against Allied armor on both the Eastern Front and in the Western Desert. By 1944 it was no longer capable of knocking out the most heavily-armored enemy tanks, but its low silhouette made it very easy to camouflage and it remained in service with many units.
The 75mm PAK40 arrived at the front in the spring of 1942. While it never fully replaced the earlier weapon, it became the standard German anti-tank gun with over 23,000 of them built by the end of the war. German infantry divisions went to war in 1939 with a dozen anti-tank guns (initially the nearly-useless 37mm PAK36); by the summer of 1944 the paper allotment had risen to 21 PAK40, but some divisions still had PAK38 weapons. The 75mm gun could knock out any Allied tank, but unlike the 50mm gun its much greater weight made it nearly impossible to manhandle into a new firing position.
The Axis defense would rely on armored formations – all but one of them German – counter-attacking Soviet breakthroughs and acting as “fire brigades” to stiffen the resistance of German and Romanian infantry divisions. Most of the panzer divisions entered the campaign chronically short of armor after the disordered retreat from Ukraine, and once battle was joined replacements proved hard to come by.
The backbone of the panzer force was the formidable Panzerkampwagen V Panther. With its extremely-long-barreled 75mm gun it could destroy any tank in the Soviet inventory, even the new Josef Stalin II behemoths. At 45 tons, the Panther was much larger than other “medium” tanks, but offered a good balance of speed, protection and firepower.
The Panther also proved very expensive to manufacture, so the much smaller and cost-effective PzKpfw IVH medium tank remained in production. Weighing in at 25 tons compared to the Panther’s 45 tons, the PzKpfw IVH carried a very effective 75mm gun with a merely long barrel, and offered reasonable protection and good speed. A German panzer division was allotted 96 Panther and 96 PzKpfw IVH tanks on paper, but due to greater production of the smaller tank the PzKpfw IVH usually outnumbered the Panther on the battlefield.
The Tiger I heavy tank had been intended to serve only in separate heavy tank battalions, but the favored Grossdeutschland Panzer Grenadier Division had its own battalion of the huge machines. Fairly slow but heavily armored, the Tiger featured an 88mm gun that could fairly easily shred any tank the Soviets chose to throw against it.
Assault Guns and Tank Destroyers
For infantry support, the German Army built a series of turretless tanks known as assault guns. Controlled by the artillery branch rather than the armored forces, they nevertheless at times stood in for real tanks.
The most common model, and also the most common German armored fighting vehicle of any type, the Sturmgeschütz IIIG carried the same 75mm gun as the PzKpfw IVH on a low-slung chassis derived from the obsolete PzKpfw III. Though intended to accompany the infantry and destroy fortified positions, the vehicle often served as a tank destroyer as well.
For more firepower against soft targets, the Sturmhaubitz 42 mounted a 105mm howitzer on a StuGIIIG hull. They were very similar in all other respects except for the larger main gun. Thanks to its utility against enemy tanks, far more of the StuGIIIG were produced.
Anti-tank battalions of panzer divisions had the self-propelled Marder II, a 75mm PAK40 anti-tank gun mounted on the chassis of the obsolescent PzKpfw II light tank. Almost 800 of them were built, and they proved effective as anti-tank guns but unlike the assault guns could not really be used as a substitute for a real tank thanks to their open top, high silhouette and thin armor.
The infantry gun companies of many panzer grenadier regiments had the Grille (“Cricket”), a 150mm infantry gun mounted on the chassis of the obsolete Czech-made PzKpfw 38t. When Adolf Hitler discovered that the Germany Army was naming weapons after insects he directed that they receive more martial designations, and officially the Grille became the Bison. We kept the insect name, and most German units appear to have done the same. There were two similar models of the Cricket, one with a lower fighting compartment than the other, but they served together and had the same capabilities so we use just one piece to represent them.
Nazi Germany’s essentially feudal nature prevented standardization of weapon types even between branches of the same service; the cozily corrupt relationships between purchasing officers and arms manufacturers also contributed to the plethora of designs. So while the artillery took the 75mm gun to war mounted on the very efficient StuGIIIG and the panzer branch placed it on the PzKpfw IV, recon units had a halftrack-mounted version known as the SdKfz251/9. It offered no advantages over the assault gun except greater profitability for its maker, Hanomag.
The SdKfz 10/4 and 10/5 unarmored halftracks mounted a 20mm anti-aircraft gun and equipped German motorized anti-aircraft units from the start of the war. It also proved useful against soft targets. The two models are no different in game terms so they’re represented by the same piece.
And that’s the German order of battle for Broken Axis. The pieces themselves are beautiful: silky-smooth and die-cut with minimal force, leaving them flush on both sides.
You can order Broken Axis right here.
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.