Panzer Grenadier (Modern)
Cold War: Fulda Gap 1968
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
In August 1968, the Warsaw Pact decided to offer “fraternal assistance” to Czechoslovakia to bring the republic back into the world socialist order. In what was called Operation Danube, 20 divisions with 250,000 troops from the Soviet Union, Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria rolled into Czech territory on 20 August 1968, later joined by an equal number of reinforcements.
The ”Prague Spring” of First Secretary Alexander Dubcek loosed government controls on the economy, free speech and publishing. It split the country into two republics, a Czech Republic and a Slovak Republic, each of which would at least move closer to democratic rule. The reforms began just after New Year’s Day 1968, continuing to expand until Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev had had enough.
The newly-proclaimed Brezhnev Doctrine held that a threat to turn a socialist country toward capitalism threatened the social order in every socialist country, and therefore other socialist countries had the right and the obligation to oppose such a move, by force if necessary. The Czechoslovak Army, 235,000-strong in 18 divisions, offered no armed resistance though crowds of protestors made their displeasure clear.
That’s the background of our Cold War: Fulda Gap 1968. Or at least part of it. All of the above actually happened. International reaction was muted at best. The United States attempted to pass a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the act, but at a time when U.S. forces were waging a wide-scale war in Vietnam there was little willingness to scold the Soviets. Only the People’s Republic of China – at the time still diplomatically isolated – offered a full-throated denunciation, with Premier Zhou Enlai comparing the Soviet invasion to the German occupation and calling on the Czech and Slovak peoples to wage guerilla war.
Fulda Gap 1968 actually has two stories, each of them set against the backdrop of Operation Danube. In one, the move into Czechoslovakia is part of a larger effort to settle accounts with the West and bring all of Germany into the socialist order. The Soviet Army and its allies storm forward into West Germany, headed for the Rhine. That includes a surge into the Fulda Gap by 8th Guards Army, met at first by 14th Armored Cavalry Regiment and then the assembled forces of the U.S. V Corps and West German III Corps.
The Soviet drive is eventually stopped by the American and West German divisions, with the help of reinforcements and air support. It still results in a war lasting several weeks and 20 scenarios. There are tank battles, many tank battles, as the follow-on 1st Guards Tank Army (in the actual events committed to the occupation, but in our story that was merely a ruse) enters the fray. When you get to make up the story, you can craft it to match the needs of the game, and I wanted to show off the Panzer Grenadier (Modern) system as a true analog to Panzer Grenadier, able to depict armor operations in many circumstances, and also give a solid representation of infantry-only affairs (though in this case, there are so many vehicles in play that even the “infantry” formations on both sides are now fully mechanized).
In our other story, the capitalist West takes advantage of the distraction provided by the Prague Spring – a distraction deliberately incited by Dubcek and the other capitalist stooges for just this purpose – to launch an attack on the fraternity of socialist peoples. The American V Corps and west German III Corps invade the German Democratic Republic, to be met by the 8th Guards Army, soon reinforced by 1st Guards Tank Army pulled out of Czechoslovakia.
The Western drive is eventually stopped by Soviet reinforcements and air support. The war still lasts several weeks and 20 scenarios, ending with NATO in possession of a portion of the German Democratic Republic as peace talks begin.
And that’s how I wanted to organize Fulda Gap 1968, with two story arcs rather than just one. At the tactical level, the side on the operational defensive (like the Red Army in Fire in the Steppe, or the French in 1940: The Fall of France) usually still has plenty of opportunities to attack. But players don’t always recognize that, and think it’s only fun to play the Germans in either of those games. And even with individual scenarios put the “defensive” player on the offensive, the battle games that link the chapters together usually do reflect the overall picture; you may get to attack one or twice but you’ll be defending five or six times.
While the West entertained a horror of a pending Soviet attack for decades, particularly during the 1980’s, this seems to have actually been far less likely than imagined. Likewise, NATO was never an offensive alliance despite Soviet fears (which seem to have been more than simply propaganda – to some extent, the leadership genuinely believed themselves at risk of an attack). But even so, both sides trained relentlessly for such a campaign, and poured trillions of dollars and rubles into arming themselves for it; those massive expenditures would eventually destroy the socialist economies of the East and pave the way for the fall of the Soviet Union.
Panzer Grenadier (Modern) is designed to model tactical combat from roughly 1955 to 1975. After that, the Panzer Grenadier model doesn’t really hold up to the emerging technologies. The weapons and tactics of 1968 still show many similarities to those of 1945; the lessons of the 1967 Six-Day War and of Vietnam have not yet been assimilated by either side along the Central Front. Attack helicopters had just been introduced in Vietnam and had not yet arrived at V Corps, while the Soviets had not yet advanced their own projects to the prototype stage. Anti-tank missiles had arrived, but not reactive armor. The battlefield is still dominated by tanks with big guns protected by hardened steel.
There are plenty of NATO-vs.-Warsaw-Pact games set in the 1980’s but few, if any, that look at the 1960’s. I didn’t want to follow the path laid down by others, and I wanted the unit pieces to be interchangeable with our 1967: Sword of Israel game. The U.S. Army shows the drain of the ongoing Vietnam War, but it’s still well able to stand up to the Soviet Army – even in the darkest times in Vietnam, the Americans dominated the conventional battlefield.
This is going to be a fun game. We’ll expand the story further with expansions and books, and make the Cold War an ongoing story arc much like out other alternative histories. It’s going to be a great ride.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published far too many books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.