Golden Journal No. 48:
Black Helicopters

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For a very long time, I’ve wanted to publish a game or book called Black Helicopters. In my journalist days, I specialized in the weird and the violent, and it was a very rare day that didn’t go by without a tip about black helicopters flying over rural Alabama and doing . . . stuff. The stuff was usually undefined, but when it was, it involved things like the mysterious helicopterians landing near highways to spray-paint coded messages on the back of roadside signs, to direct the occupiers when the United Nations took over the United States and sent all right-thinking Americans to concentration camps (since all foreigners drive on the wrong side of the road, the back side of the highway sign would become the front side for them). These days we elect those black-helicopter-spotters to Congress, so maybe I should have paid more attention.

Golden Journal No. 48: Black Helicopters is built around the 28 helicopter pieces we used in the old Secret Weapons book (part of a larger sheet including the heavy tanks we put in Golden Journal No. 37: Heavy Metal). They’re very nice pieces, and I couldn’t bear throwing them away when they still had so much potential for gaming fun. By which I mean providing an excuse to write some more helicopter assault scenarios.

In my childhood, back in the 1970’s, I played a game called Panzerblitz, the ancestor of all tactical games that followed including Panzer Grenadier. The game’s publisher also put out a “Gamer’s Guide to Panzerblitz” that would have a profound effect on me – much of what Avalanche Press does now is due to that early exposure.

Included in that Gamer’s Guide was a Panzerblitz variant called “Chopperblitz.” It gave you helicopter pieces you could cut out and mount yourself, and of course I did so. They were just generic attack and transport helicopters, not representing any particular model of helicopter. The background story, as I recall, made no reference at all to the actual, historical development of rotary flight.

Not long after, I discovered that actual helicopters actually existed during World War Two, and so I designed Panzerblitz pieces for them and wrote a background piece with a couple of badly-designed scenarios, and it appeared in a wargame fanzine (those photocopied journals that preceded the internets) under an unfortunate title that was not my choice. I was not yet in high school, but my career path was ordained.

So now here I am, once again writing about helicopters for a wargame variant.

I find vertical envelopment scenarios in Panzer Grenadier fascinating. There aren’t that many of them among the thousands of Panzer Grenadier scenarios (I assume there are thousands of scenarios, I didn’t keep a count). We have parachute-drop scenarios (there’s a whole game, Parachutes Over Crete, built around them and their aftermath), but helicopter assault is significantly different. Of course, there were no helicopter assaults during World War II, outside of commando-type actions. Which means that I get to make them up.

The value of the helicopter, as compared to a parachute drop, is the ability to insert its passengers exactly where desired. Helicopters are fantastically vulnerable to ground fire, but not as much as paratroopers just as they land. And helicopters can carry their own armament to suppress that ground fire and give the just-landed troops some support.

Most of the helicopters in the set are German: the light Flettner Fl.282 “Kolibri” scout helicopter, the Focke-Achgelis Fa.223 “Drache” transport helicopter and the Focke-Achgelis Fa.284 heavy-lift helicopter (which does not seem to have had a nickname). We also included armed versions of the Hummingbird and the Dragon, with both machine guns and anti-tank rockets; while the design teams studied armed versions, these were never produced – it would take another decade before the French deployed armed helicopters in Algeria.

Both the Fl.282 and the Fa.223 actually reached production as unarmed recon and transport machines, respectively, though not in the numbers that would have been needed to lift a battalion of troops or provide spotting and fire support to ground formations. The Fa.284 would have been built at the Breguet factory in France, and sabotage by patriotic French workers assured that the machine never reached the complete prototype stage.

That mix dictated the scenario set for the new Golden Journal – it would have to be a German helicopter assault. I decided that I wanted two chapters, but was only able to fit one chapter into the book (the Golden Journal is not a very thick publication, though it makes up for that with the enormity of fun provided). The German 22nd Air-Landing Division takes a helicopter detachment with it in June 1941 to invade the Soviet Union, execute some helicopters landings, and fight against Soviet river monitors.

You’ll need Parachutes Over Crete (for German mountain troops), River Battleships and Fire in the Steppe (for the maps and most of the other pieces) to play all of the scenarios.

I enjoyed the opportunity to write the helicopter scenarios; it’s a very different play experience than the tank battles and infantry assaults that dominate the series. A helicopter-ferried assault can reach exactly the desired landing zone, but even in 1941 the defenders can make that an exceptionally hot LZ – a helicopter is a pretty easy target. But some of the helicopters can shoot back, and try to suppress that fire as the troop carriers come in, while the big Fa.284 – a splendid target in its own right – can move actual artillery pieces and very small vehicles (it can’t lift a tank, however, so there are no Hubschrauber-Panzerdivisionen).

The old Secret Weapons book didn’t make use of the helicopter pieces to tell a scenario-based story (we weren’t using the story-arc format in those days) and the main event for that book was the horde of heavy metal – gigantic, drawing board tanks that never got past the prototype stage. The helicopters sort of became a sideshow. They needed to be at center stage, because helicopters are fun. You should play with them.

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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 a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects; people are saying that some of them are actually good. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children, and new puppy. He misses his lizard-hunting Iron Dog, Leopold.

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