Imperial Tank Brigades
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Designing Panzer Grenadier: Land Cruisers offered the opportunity to create an entire world, including its armed forces. That was enormous fun, and I tried to follow a reasonable path of developments extrapolated from actual events and trends.
Land Cruisers is part of our Second Great War setting, which we created as the background for our alternative-history naval game series. In the Second Great War’s reality, the First World War ends in December 1916 in a negotiated settlement brokered by Woodrow Wilson – an event that almost took place and probably was the more likely outcome at the time (history does not always obey the laws of probability). Imperial Germany has survived, along with the other great European empires (Austria, Russia, Turkey). The Allied powers of France, Italy and Russia are out to overturn this new order, and war resumes in August 1940.
I suppose I could have placed the Land Cruisers in Nazi German service, and just added them to the standard Panzer Grenadier mix as a “what if?” variant. But I really dislike Nazis, and we had a setting already, so I placed them in Imperial colors.
To play Land Cruisers, you’ll need Elsenborn Ridge (for the maps) and 1940: The Fall of France (for the French pieces). The Imperial German Army is included with the book – infantry, cavalry, artillery and of course the Land Cruisers themselves.
We looked at this Imperial Army that never existed in an earlier installment; you can see it right here. German public opinion looks to the Army as the Empire’s bulwark, defending their evolving social democracy against vengeful neighbors eager to strip away the fruits of their victory on 1916 and the decades of hard work that followed.
That attitude has rubbed off on the Army, which now regards Wilson’s Peace as a result of a German victory rather than the mutual exhaustion of the Great War’s combatants. While many individual officers sound alarms regarding military advances in potential rivals and the need to innovate, the corporate culture remains highly conservative. Incremental improvements are embraced: better artillery communications and doctrine, helicopter spotting for artillery fire, motorized logistical columns, flexible small-unit tactics. But change comes hard to the Kaiser’s land forces.
While the French and especially the Russians have enthusiastically adopted the tank as the key instrument of land warfare, Imperial Germany has been slow to match them. In recognition of the threat, the infantry has been provided with plentiful anti-tank guns, but these for the most part are lightweight 37mm weapons in keeping with the infantry doctrine of maximum flexibility and quick reaction. The elderly 77mm field pieces have a good anti-tank round, though the guns generate insufficient velocity to serve as truly effective anti-tank guns and have a high silhouette. The new 88mm artillery replacing them is very effective against tanks, but these guns are still rare and are assigned to light artillery battalions rather than the front line.
Germany experimented with tanks, but only in the late 1930’s did the Imperial Army organize tank units of its own. Each corps has a battalion of tanks, usually light tanks, while each army in addition has a brigade of heavy breakthrough tanks (that usually includes some light tanks as well). Doctrine calls for these units to be used defensively, to help counter-attack and seal enemy breakthroughs. On the offensive, their assignment is to help the infantry break through enemy positions; exploitation is the job of the cavalry and the newly-formed motorized infantry.
One tank of each type appears in Land Cruisers – the book’s all about the Land Cruisers, after all, not the tanks that support them. They are outmatched by the newest French medium and heavy tanks, the Somua S35 and Char B1 bis, but neither was intended to fight enemy tanks. Their job is to defeat enemy infantry, and they’re well-suited for this task. Unfortunately for the Germans, they don’t always get to determine the enemy they’ll face.
The heavy tank seen in Land Cruisers is the Sturmpanzer 35, a big vehicle mounting a 105mm howitzer in a boxy turret forward and a 37mm anti-tank gun in a smaller turret aft. I based it on the Soviet T35, because I’m obsessed with that strange piece of real-world dieselpunk (and even devoted an entire Golden Journal to it).
The Sturmpanzer 35 has only two turrets, compared to five for the T35, and both of them are on the same level. That immensely reduces the weight carried on the deck (not least because the main gun’s turret doesn’t have to rest on a barbette lifting it above the others). So the German tank can devote more weight to better armor protection and, being a German vehicle, to a much more powerful engine.
For its role, the Sturmpanzer 35 is not by any means a bad tank: its armor is proof against the standard-issue German anti-tank gun, it’s more than fast enough to keep up with the infantry and maneuver on the battlefield, and it has relatively enormous firepower against soft targets. But it’s not suited to battle enemy tanks, particularly the Imperial Russian T-34 with its high-velocity 57mm gun.
There are four examples of this tank in Land Cruisers, appearing in action when the 2nd Panzer Brigade attempts to stem the French tide, and again when the 15th Panzer Brigade takes part in the German Land Cruiser-led counter-offensive.
The standard light tank in Land Cruisers is the Leichter Panzer 40. Initially I used a drawing that we’ve had around for a long time, for the proposed VK1602 Leopard reconnaissance tank, which placed the 50mm turret from the Sd.Kfz 234/2 armored car (sometimes called the “Puma,” though not by the German Army) on a chassis very similar to that of the PzKpfw II. I decided that this tank, rejected by Nazi Germany in 1943, would be a little too much tank for Imperial Germany in 1940.
The LPz40 instead carries a 37mm gun in a somewhat smaller turret. It’s relatively fast, and armored to withstand rounds from similar weapons. It’s actually a superior tank to what the Germans actually fielded in that role in 1940 (the PzKpfw II light tank), but it’s not used in the same manner to fully exploit the abilities of the new weapons.
Instead, the light tank appears alongside its heavier sister, fighting to seal off enemy breaches or open one for the Germans. It’s a better tank than the French light tanks, and could form the basis for an effective panzer division. But that’s not in the cards for this version of Germany.
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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, two turkeys and his dog, Leopold.