Fire in the Steppe:
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
The Imperial German Army had used armored
trains in the First World War, as had all
of the powers involved on the Eastern Front.
A train had many advantages in this period,
as no other vehicle could move nearly so fast
or so far. Mounted units might have an advantage
over rough terrain, but they could not carry
with them the heavy weapons available to a
During the following war, Germany did not
make as great use of armored trains as the
Red Army, whose trains were profiled in another
piece. But the Wehrmacht fielded several
dozen such anachronisms during the war in
the Soviet Union, and they are present in Panzer
Grenadier: Fire in the Steppe.
“Artillery wagon” of Panzerzug
In the years that followed the First World
War, the armored train fell out of favor with
the German armed forces. A train clad in armor
and bearing artillery seemed a relic of the
previous generation, and this did not fit
Nazi visions of their class-free society’s
technologically advanced war machine.
But Nazism consisted of projecting an imagined
heroic past into the future, and thus it maintained
a feudal economic and political system. Under
this organization, political power bases that
lacked their own para-military arm faced the
danger of being pushed aside in the race for
prestige and funding. So while the Reichswehr
disdained armored trains as did its successor,
the Wehrmacht, the Reichsbahn, or German National
Railways, seized on them as an opportunity
to maintain a military force.
During the 1920s, the railroad’s paramilitary
organization, the Bahnschutz, had been a volunteer
affair dedicated to protecting rail lines
in case of national emergency. By 1932 the
railway’s board of directors considered
it a hotbed of Nazi agitation; the Nazis themselves
were frustrated that they had not penetrated
the railroad militia deeply enough and considered
it a potential enemy in case of civil war.
The Reichsbahn made good profits from carrying
Nazi activists to assorted party rallies in
the early 1930s. The state-owned firm cultivated
this relationship by extending a 40 percent
discount to Nazis, in the face of direct orders
from both the national government and Prussia’s
state government to restrict Nazi train rides.
At the same time, however, board members rejected
Nazi demands that the Reichsbahn cancel contracts
with Jewish-owned firms and fire directors
and managers who were Jewish, Freemasons or
from other undesirable categories. By September
1934, the Reichbahn had reached a compromise
with the Nazis, who now firmly controlled
the government: The railways would adhere
to Nazi political, military and economic policies.
In exchange, the government would not interfere
with management of the railways outside of
those spheres. Over the next decade, firm
control of the railways would become crucial
to Nazi schemes, not least of them the Holocaust.
Panzerzug 10b. Built by Tsarist Russia, captured
by Reds, captured by Poles,
captured by Soviets, captured by Germans, captured by Soviets.
Not considered jinxed.
The Bahnschutz converted from a militia to
a uniformed full-time paramilitary police
force. In 1938 they handed over their seven
armored trains to the regular army. Most of
these participated in the Polish campaign
of 1939, giving artillery support to advancing
German troops. Polish troops shot up several
of the trains; only of them, Armored Train
6, seems to have met any significant success,
helping to capture the town of Grajewo on
Despite these failures, the Wehrmacht added
a number of former Polish and Czech armored
trains to its inventory for the 1940 campaign
in the Western theater. The plan to invade
the Netherlands made up for the relative lack
of tanks in the German force by assigning
armored trains to the assault forces. On Holland’s
level ground and well-developed railway system,
planners hoped the trains could have a significant
Instead, the Dutch attacked the trains enthusiastically.
Armored Train 6 was assigned to seize the
turntable bridge at Winschoten; the Dutch
defenders turned the bridge 90 degrees and
the German train turned back. Dutch defenders
of the Ijssel Bridge repelled a Brandenburg commando attack and smashed the supporting
Armored Train 5 with anti-tank fire. A few
miles away at Zutphen, other Dutch infantrymen
shot Armored Train 3 to pieces with machine-gun
Continuing the policy of “no failure left behind,”
the Wehrmacht ordered a serious expansion
of its armored train branch for the 1941 invasion
of the Soviet Union. The new armored trains,
known as “Panzerzug 1941,” made
use of turrets from French tanks and sometimes
the entire vehicle. A standard armored diesel
locomotive, the WR360, was ordered to power
A number of these fought in the opening
stages of Operation Barbarossa, with somewhat
more success than they had had in the Netherlands.
That resulted in orders for the much more
sophisticated “Panzerzug 1942,”
with specialized armored artillery and anti-aircraft
cars. For reconnaissance, a smaller version
known as the “Panzerbetriebswagen 42”
had just the locomotive, with extensions at
either end bearing an armored turret for a
captured 76.2mm ex-Soviet field gun. These
would scout ahead of the full-size armored
trains to make sure the tracks remained intact;
armored cars and sometimes tanks with their
wheels or tracks replaced with railroad axles
performed this duty as well.
German armored trains fought at the front
throughout the war, but their real use came
in patrolling the Soviet Union’s huge
railway net to protect against partisan attack.
Rail beds are actually fairly difficult to
destroy without explosives or special equipment,
and the trains always carried spare rails
and ties, and the equipment and specialists
to make quick repairs.
Panzerbetriebwagen Number 16.
Grenadier: Fire in the Steppe there’s
one German armored train, a generic piece
used in the game to represent several
types of train. Its game strengths are a little
above what a pre-war train probably deserves,
and its direct-fire strength is a little less
than a 1942 model should get (anti-tank strength’s
about right, though).
Don’t wait to put Fire in the Steppe on your game table! Join the Gold Club and find out how to get it before anyone else!
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.