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Parachutes over Crete:
First Look

The very idea of “Panzer Grenadier without panzers” horrified a long-ago marketing guru here. And while she had a good point – wargamers do love their tanks – there is one very strong exception. Panzer Grenadier was designed to give tanks and infantry equal billing in terms of game play (and in the name – see what we did there?), and a clash between elite foot soldiers is every bit as exciting on the game table, and marketable on the game shelf.

That’s what Mike Perryman has delivered with Parachutes over Crete. It’s not completely tank-less – the British have two of them, one Matilda II and one Mark VIb light tank – but it’s about as close to having no tanks as we’re likely to ever see again in this series. Instead it features some of the toughest fighters of World War II: German paratroopers, Maoris, German mountain troops, New Zealanders, Australians and some really pissed-off Cretan farmers.

German paratroopers descended on the big Greek island of Crete in May 1941. In April, German panzers had roared through Greece, finishing a campaign begun by Germany’s Italian allies in October 1940 for no sane reason. The British rushed troops into Greece, mostly Australian and New Zealand infantry, and just as rapidly ended up evacuating them. Many of them ended up on Crete, the long, narrow and mountainous island that divides the Aegean Sea from the Mediterranean.

Crete could, German planners feared, provide air bases that would allow the British to dominate the eastern Mediterranean sea routes and, in the mind of Adolf Hitler, send bombers to attack the vital oil fields at Ploesti in Romania. In German hands, those same bases could not only dominate the sea lanes, but send planes to intervene in the ongoing campaign in North Africa. The strategic stakes appeared quite high.

As the Royal Navy dominated the seas around Crete, the German Luftwaffe’s staff proposed seizing the island through a daring airborne assault. The Air Force’s oversized 7th Airborne Division would assault multiple airfields with both parachute and glider-borne troops, and once those had been secured the Army’s 22nd Air-Landing Division would debark on them and join the fight. Things didn’t go exactly as planned – the air-landing division could not be brought to southern Greece in time and a mountain division took its place, while the defenders of Crete included many more Australians and New Zealanders than the Germans expected. But after two weeks of brutal fighting, the Germans finally secured the island.

Parachutes over Crete covers all of those battles, in forty scenarios organized in turn into battle games like all of our recent Panzer Grenadier titles. The scenarios are almost exclusively infantry fights, with those Matildas showing up in all of three scenarios out of forty.

Instead, the key units are infantry. Almost no infantry in the Panzer Grenadier series have had better morale than the German paratroopers, and in this campaign they’re at their peak performance. In addition to the sky-high morale, they have outstanding leaders and plenty of them, and almost always go into battle with high initiative. They are a formidable force. Unfortunately for them, their rifles and heavy weapons were dropped separately in cargo containers and most men landed armed only with a pistol. This proved a problem when pitchfork-wielding Cretan peasants tried to overrun their landing zones.

There’s that little weasel word “almost” in that last paragraph, and it’s there because of New Zealand’s 28th Maori Battalion. The Maoris appeared many years ago in the long-out-of-print Desert Rats, and now they’re back. Maori morale is essentially bulletproof, they’re packing lots of extra automatic weapons, and on top of that they relish close combat.

The pakeha New Zealanders are no mean fighters, either, nor are the Australians. One infantry brigade of Australians and two of New Zealanders formed the garrison’s backbone, all under the command of the fighting dentist, Maj. Gen. Bernard Freyberg, the 2nd New Zealand Division’s commander. A third New Zealand brigade mostly commanded Greek units; Greek troops also supplement most of the other Allied brigades.

Later on, the German mountain troops appear. Like the paratroopers, they have excellent morale and leadership. Their de-centralized structure means they usually have more support weapons than regular German infantry, but less artillery support. They’ve appeared in a number of Panzer Grenadier games, though most of those are out of print (I think they only currently show up in La Campagne de Tunisie, just three pieces).

And then there are the Cretans. German military intelligence claimed the invaders would be greeted as liberators; while the locals may have disliked the mainland Greeks and the representatives of the central government, they hated the Germans. They needed no encouragement to come boiling out of their mountain villages to assail the paratroopers with pitchforks, axes and shotguns even as they drifted down from the sky. Thanks to centuries of resistance against the Ottoman Turks, Cretan tradition called for every household to possess at least one firearm, and endless clan vendettas left the Cretans well-experienced in ambush and murder. And so they appear in Parachutes over Crete as well: perhaps not very well-armed, but very, very angry.

While the forty scenarios are all primarily infantry actions, they include a wide variety of attacks and counter-attacks, and of course the centerpiece, the airborne landings.  It’s a Mike Perryman design, which means it has good variety of scenario size as well.

The four brand-new maps are by Guy Riessen, showing the rugged, rocky terrain of Crete with its vineyards and olive groves and sun-kissed white villages. Airfield markers show the vital objectives of many of the battles, allowing the maps to be used in many scenarios not involving an airfield.

I must have been 12 or 13 years old when I bought a wargame about the airborne assault on Crete at a mall toy store. It brought it home, set it up and promptly became extremely frustrated with its arcane rules and difficult measures of victory. The little game about the planned invasion of Malta was somewhat better, but not enough to assuage my unhappiness. My mother gracefully scooped it up and returned it, talking the clerk out of a refund even though I’d punched out the playing pieces.

Years later, we looked at publishing a Crete game at Avalanche Press, using the same system as the Malta game we did publish (the out-of-print Island of Death). The key objectives (the airfields) are well separated, so either you go with several separate games played at once each keyed on an airfield (the approach of that ancient game that disappointed me so), or you have this huge map with lots of wilderness between the objectives, over which no one is likely to try to march.

That makes the battle perfectly suited to Panzer Grenadier; those separate objectives serving nicely to frame the different battle games. Parachutes over Crete is an exceptionally fine addition to the Panzer Grenadier series, even if it lacks much in the way of panzers.

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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 approves of the Iron Dog.