Scenario Preview, Part One
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Our alternative-history naval games have always been very popular, mostly because ship fans really like the chance to play with ships designed but never built. That’s never been the case with our land warfare games; tank fans for some reason don’t feel the same way about tanks that were designed but not deployed.
So to make an alternative-history land warfare game, you need to have something special. A hook that makes it different from just a similar game with different-colored pieces, preferably one that’s weird and wonderful, that brings additional fun to a familiar setting.
Land Cruisers, our Panzer Grenadier game of giant war machines, fits those requirements exactly. Not only do you get to play with the gigantic Land Cruisers, you can play through a series of 10 scenarios following a the story of the Second Great War’s opening days on the Western Front. Developers Matt Ward and Daniel Rouleau have not only crafted a fun set of game rules for the massive steel beasts, but put them into a story arc as well. Let’s have a look at it.
9 September 1940
The first French probes across the frontier demarcated in early 1917 came in the late hours of 9 September, before the official start of operations. While no one would ever have suggested that the attack was a “surprise,” the fact that action began prior to a declaration of war would become a key propaganda point for the Central Powers in general and the Germans in particular.
German customs agents manning a border tariff station north of Metz, near the fixed fortifications of Diedenhofen (Thionville to the French) were the first to see the French armored fist in action. Before the French mechanized troopers smashed their radio the border guards sent the message, “French armed forces are passing this station. Many heavily laden vehicles moving quickly to the east have been spotted. None have paid the required toll. ...” The Second Great War had begun in the West.
Strong French forces poured across the border, looking to smash their way through the German frontier posts and quickly mask the Diedenhofen/Thionville fortress complex with their follow-on infantry formations while the armor plunged on into German territory. Judging by the first day’s results, the plan had a good chance of working. The German general staff detailed Franz Halder, commanding the IV Bavarian Corps, to ensure that the fortifications were manned and prepared for the onslaught.
You never show Godzilla in the first reel of a kaiju film, right? We start the Second Great War with the French trying to bop their way past startled German frontier troops, mostly horsed cavalry. It’s just a small scenario, but should give a feel for the capabilities of the Imperial German Army and their French enemies.
10 September 1940
Brushing aside the German screening forces, the French spearhead crashed into serious opposition a few kilometers further on. Per French doctrine, the mechanized forces were to push until the opposition stiffened and then make way for the infantry divisions and their ample artillery to create a penetration. Once the penetration had been gained, the mechanized forces would be unleashed again and the cycle would repeat until the Germans could not recover or the artillery ammunition ran out.
The Germans had built the Groener Line in the 1930s to slow a French advance long enough to allow time for full mobilization. German war planners did not expect their fixed fortifications to stop a French assault forever, but did believe they could hold up an invading army for some time. La guerre éclair presented an unforeseen twist to the campaign. It was Halder’s job to delay the French advance long enough for the follow on forces to arrive and German mobilization to continue.
Backed by massive artillery and air support, the French infantry and their infantry-support tanks fought their way through the German fortified line. The Imperial German forces fought desperately to keep the invaders off German soil. It became apparent that if the Germans hoped to seal the French breakthrough they would have to commit their own armored reserves.
Halder reported to his Army commander, Fedor von Bock, that the time had come to send forward the mobile reserves. After a single full day of full-scale war, no knowledgeable German general thought that their own tanks could stand up to those of the French. Yet, what else was there to do?
The French continue their invasion, assaulting a heavily-fortified German line with a large infantry force backed by hordes of light tanks. The monsters aren’t in view yet, but the Germans are having trouble stopping the French without them.
The Panzer Reserve
12 September 1940
As French infantry divisions fought fierce battles to widen the breach in the Groener Line, their armored spearheads poured through and advanced through Lorraine toward the Rhineland. So far, French losses had been no more than expected and the penetration of the fortifications had come within the specified operational timeline. All seemed to be falling into place for the Republic. Indeed, the site of the resistance bombers’ immolation had been captured and several of the leading political lights of the Republic had quickly travelled to Thionville to be photographed on the steps of the ruined newspaper offices.
Meanwhile, the Imperial Army’s pre-war plans called for a defense in depth, with strong formations supported by brigade-level armored forces counter-attacking any breaches in the forward defenses. Losses of the border fortifications were to be expected prior to the completion of mobilization. With the gap in the Thionville area apparent, the plans for a swift counterstrike were put into operation. Obedient to their plans, the German tankers sealed their hatches and rolled ponderously forward.
Unprepared for the fast-paced armored maneuvers of the French, the Germans could only attempt to seize and hold key positions. Attempts to move their own tanks out to seek and destroy the enemy armor only resulted in the faster and better-controlled Somua 35’s sweeping around their flanks for deadly shots against the more lightly-armored engine compartments of the big and ungainly German machines. German generals agreed: they were going to need a better tank.
The final warm-up brings the Imperial German tankers into action. These are not the panzers you’ve been looking for; it’s going to be a rough time for the Kaiser’s armor because, well, just look over there on the right - that's the best tank the Germans have. But help is on the way, it’s just really really slow.
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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.