Fire in the Steppe:
German Armored Trains

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
December 2016

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 train.

“Artillery wagon” of Panzerzug 21.
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.

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 1 September.

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 impact.

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 fire.

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 them.

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.

Panzerbetriebwagen Number 16.
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.

In Panzer 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).

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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.