By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
For some decade after the Second World War, both the newly-rechristened Soviet Army and their Western rivals looked at very large and heavily-armored tanks as the backbone of their armored forces. That line of thought sprang from German thinking, as the former allies had sought weapons to counter the massive Royal Tiger tanks and the even bigger tanks sure to follow.
By the 1960’s, that approach was finally seen as a dead end. The separate classes of tanks were giving way to a main battle tank that could perform many functions, with a balance of speed, protection and firepower. The heavy tank no longer had a place on the battlefield.
But some of them did remain in the depots of both sides, and that’s the theme of Panzer Grenadier (Modern): Heavy Tanks. It’s an expansion book for Cold War: Fulda Gap 1968, the first but surely not last Panzer Grenadier (Modern) game to take the system to the hypothetical battlefields of Central Europe. Under cover of Operation Danube, the massive movement of troops into heretical Czechoslovakia to offer “fraternal assistance,” the armies of the Warsaw Pact plunge into West Germany to fight a NATO alliance whose key member is distracted by the Vietnam quagmire. The game takes place in the Fulda Gap (thus the name), where the line is held by the West German Bundeswehr and the U.S. Army.
They’re armed with M60 and M48 main battle tanks (yes, the M48, as the treadhead version of Comic Book Guy will tell you, was introduced as a medium tank), and opposed by Soviet Army and Guards divisions that bring T62 and T54/55 main battle tanks to the dance (the T64 had just entered service, but had not yet reached the divisions of the GSFG). That’s plenty of armored firepower, and there are lots of supporting vehicles and weapons on both sides, too.
What neither side has any more is a heavy tank. But they had them still lurking in storage, so in Heavy Tanks, you get to use them: the American M103 heavy tank with its super-heavy 120mm rifle. It’s a crapulent vehicle, under-powered and under-protected, and the Army got rid of them (dumping most of these white elephants on the U.S. Marine Corps) for good reason. But they did look impressive, and you can try them out on the battlefield and see if the Army got this right (hint: they did).
A Soviet T10 heavy tanks offers fraternal assistance in Prague, 1968.
The Soviet equivalent is the T-10 heavy tank, the ultimate expression of the JS series of heavy tanks. It’s heavily armored, not very fast, and carries the same D-25T 122mm tank rifle that armed the latter models of the JS series. It had officially been withdrawn from front-line service by 1967, the year before our game takes place, but at least one took part in Operation Danube (see the photo) and the rest remained in reserve units and storage depots for another three decades so it certainly could have appeared in the Fulda Gap among the second or third wave of Soviet units.
But that’s not all. Each side gets another tank that never actually existed beyond prototype form.
For the Americans and their West German allies, it’s the MBT70 failed main battle tank proposal. This unusual tank had a huge turret that housed the entire three-man crew, a special suspension that allowed it to “kneel” to fight and present a low silhouette or raise up to run fast over the ground, and a special 152mm gun/launcher that could either fire shells of various types or launch anti-tank missiles (not as cool a concept in practice as it sounds in that sentence).
An MBT70 prototype spats forth a missile from its gun/launcher.
Many issues doomed the project, not least the American insistence on measuring some parts in inches while the Germans measured others in millimeters. By 1968, the time of our game, the tank should have been arriving at the front lines but it remained mired in bureaucratic infighting and design problems and instead had just entered full trials. More problems surfaced, more infighting erupted, and final formal cancellation came in January 1970.
The Soviet Union, for its part, had just introduced the IT-1 missile tank in 1968. This modified T62 carried fifteen 3M7 Drakon radio-guided anti-tank missiles in boxes which were mechanically lifted outside the turret by a painfully slow-moving pop-up launcher and loosed. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had demanded a missile that could be launched from the barrel of a tank’s gun, like the American Shillelagh that the MBT-70 would have carried. Chief designer L.N. Kartsev successfully argued that the system would not fit inside the standard T62 turret, as the design brief required, and the folding tail of the missile could too easily be damaged inside the gun barrel, causing the missile to spiral into the ground in front of the tank. Krushchev approved the design without further revision, and testing completed in 1964 with the first production models appearing in 1968.
This IT-1 missile tank is now a sad forgotten museum piece.
The missile tanks went to two newly-established tank destroyer battalions, one in the Belarusian and one in the Carpathian Military District. Each motor rifle division was to receive such a battalion, but this was not to be. Further testing by the new battalions showed that the IT-1 was exceedingly vulnerable to enemy action because it had no gun, leaving a huge “dead zone” inside the effective minimum range of the Drakon missile. By 1971 the battalions had been disbanded and the tank chassis converted to other uses.
Heavy Tanks includes both the MBT-70 (in American and West German colors) and the IT-1, so you can try out these failed ideas for yourself. The scenarios expand on the story told in Fulda Gap, which works surprisingly well since there was no actual battle in the Fulda Gap at any time after 1945 (though you couldn’t tell that from the output of wargame publishers).
Fulda Gap has forty scenarios; Heavy Tanks adds another 20, which also add in the two heavy tank types and the two missile-firing tanks. Since I made up the first part of the story, it wasn’t that hard to make a few more dovetail with them. The MBT-70 is a pretty good weapon system, since you as the player don’t have to deal with the development issues that kept it out of the NATO lineup. The IT-1 isn’t much more than a self-propelled missile launcher, which is pretty useful in combination with other units, not so useful by itself or just with mechanized infantry (which is how it would have been used).
The heavy tanks aren’t useless on the battlefield; they’re just not as good as the newer main battle tanks and clearly were not worth keeping in service when better tanks became available on either side of the Iron Curtain. But you get to play with them, and don’t have to face the consequences.
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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 an unknowable number of books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold knows the number.