Panzers of Kursk
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
A long time ago, I’m not really sure when now, I decided that the first boxed game in the Panzer Grenadier series should focus on the opening battles of the Eastern Front, from June through the end of 1941. I think some involved in the playtesting and production questioned this, and I probably did within my own head (or at least the voices there did). But I had a reason. It wasn’t a good reason, but it was a reason.
I initially designed the game that became Panzer Grenadier as a replacement for the ancient Avalon Hill board game Panzerblitz. That now-defunct company’s management and I could not come to terms on a contract (in short, they wanted to pay me a lot less and on much more unfavorable terms than I was willing to accept), leaving me free to use the design as I wished. So when we formed Avalanche Press, I decided not to use the exact same time frame as the old Panzerblitz, 1943-44 on the Eastern Front. I could have; the work belonged to me and the Avalon Hill people were actually quite encouraging. But I didn’t want to be seen as copying their game, and I wanted to be different.
Since I was a small child, wanting to be different has gotten me into a lot of trouble. Eastern Front, as we titled that original game, sold over well into five figures in its two editions, phenomenal numbers for a wargame title in this age. But we could have done more, if we’d started where we should have, with the largest tank battles in history. Wargamers love tanks, and they love battles with scads and scads of them on each side.
So, finally, we’re taking the Panzer Grenadier system where it should have been all along. The battle of Kursk, history’s largest tank battle, holds a special magical hold on tank-loving gamers. And we have plenty of tanks for them to love.
Almost all of South Flank’s German pieces are in Waffen SS colors. And there are a lot of tanks. Here’s a look at the German armor found in the game:
The Panzerkampfwagen II had been a main battle tank during the invasion of Poland just four years before, but even then its days were numbered as bigger and more powerful machines were in production. With an automatic 20mm gun, it could do some damage to unprotected infantry and thin-skinned vehicles, but it could not survive against enemy armor and even Soviet anti-tank rifles could penetrate its tender hide. A handful of these tanks still served on by the summer of 1943, assigned to divisional reconnaissance battalions for the most part.
A handful of Panzerkampfwagen III tanks fought in Poland, but they did not truly make their combat debut until the invasion of France in the spring of 1940. As initially built they carried a 37mm gun, but even as the first models rolled of the production lines German tank designers contemplated upgunning them with a 50mm weapon. That didn’t take place until after the French campaign ended, with the first tanks carrying the 50mm gun entering service in July 1940.
Adolf Hitler personally ordered the tank fitted with a new, longer-barreled 50mm gun (known as the L/60 model) as soon as he saw the initial tanks with the shorter 50mm (the L/42 model). Despite the issuance of the order in August 1940, when Hitler reviewed the troops on his birthday in April 1941 the longer gun still had not been fitted; ordnance tests said the short weapons was perfectly suitable against any enemy armor likely to be encountered. After the Führer raged about his orders being ignored, the manufacturers (seven German firms held assembly contracts) immediately switched to the new weapon.
By the summer of 1943, the PzKpfw III with the long 50mm gun (noted as PzIIIJ in our game, though this represents several models of similar characteristics) still served as the main battle tank of the Waffen SS panzer divisions. Four hundred and thirty-two of the machines, both Army and SS, were listed with the divisions that fought at Kursk. But they had never been a true match for the best Soviet tanks, and they would face hundreds of late-model T-34’s fighting in the Soviet tank corps. Even less capable models with the L/42 gun still served as well; these are designed PzIIIG in the game but likewise represent several models whose differences aren’t enough to show up in the unit ratings.
More Medium Tanks
The Panzerkampfwagen IV initially was designed as an infantry-support tank, with a short-barreled 75mm gun to engage enemy fortifications. These tanks fought in Poland, and in the French campaign were called on to battle the superior French machines that the PzKpfw III could not match. The Germans eventually developed an effective high-explosive antitank round for the short-barreled 75mm gun, but the armored troops really needed a better weapon.
That came in the spring of 1942, when the appearance of the unstoppable Soviet T-34 turned the plans to fit a long-barreled 75mm gun on the tank from “eventual” to “urgent.” The change came in the middle of the production run of the PzKpfw IVF, resulting in some tanks designated F1 (with the short gun) and some known as F2 (with the long one).
The new tank proved extremely effective, giving the German panzer crews a vehicle that could match the Red Army’s tanks and one superior to those the British deployed in North Africa. A year later production shifted to the PzKpfw IVH model, with improved armor protection (and a new transmission to handle the increased weight) and this tank along with the similar model J (both represented by the same piece in Panzer Grenadier games) would serve through the end of the war as the standard tank of the panzer divisions.
At the time of the Kursk offensive, there were still about 60 tanks with the short-barreled 75mm gun serving in the panzer divisions assigned to the attack. In game terms, all of these are designed PzIVE but these pieces also representing the F1 model. Another 841 tanks of the F2 and G models (all covered by the game’s F2 piece) were present at Kursk, and a small number of model H.
SS divisions had not yet received the Panzerkampfwagen V Panther tanks at the time of the Kursk attack, but they did wield an equally impressive weapon, the PzKpfw VIE Tiger, later known as the Tiger I. This tank was as large as the big Soviet machines, and carried a much more impressive weapon, the 88mm L/56 gun that could shred any Soviet tank then in service. It had good armor protection, and was only slightly slower than the PzKpfw IV. The SS divisions often had their own organic heavy tank companies; otherwise, this machine served almost exclusively in separate heavy tank battalions.
The SS did not have the Panther, but the 2nd SS Reich Panzer Division made up for this lack by deploying two dozen captured Soviet T-34 tanks. Designated the PzKpfw 747r, these vehicles usually had been modified with a German-style commander’s cupola but retained their Soviet armament — so many Soviet 76.2mm guns had been captured in the early months of the war, that German factories had set up production lines to manufacture ammunition for them.
That’s a brief look at the German tanks found in Kursk: South Flank; later we’ll visit the other vehicles (and there are a lot of those: halftracks, armored cars and assault guns of all shapes and sizes) the Germans wield, and the Soviet lineup as well.
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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.