By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Panzer Grenadier: Panzer Lehr is pretty much the archetype of our Panzer Grenadier expansion books, with all the elements we like to see in them. It has a unique set of 176 playing pieces in a special Panzer Lehr color scheme, 27 new scenarios using them, and a campaign game to generate still more action.
The playing pieces have the gray-green “field gray” background color I originally wanted as the standard German Army color in Panzer Grenadier. I still regret not insisting on this shade instead of the gray ultimately used; maybe we’ll change colors someday.
There are 176 of them, providing enough for all of the scenarios included in the book plus some extras for use in your own scenarios. And just because they’re cool. In addition to the tanks, troops and weapons, the Panzer Lehr set also has leaders. We’ve done other special “divisional sets” before, often as special inducements for the Gold Club, but none of those ever included their own leaders. The Panzer Lehr leaders are extremely good: these are, after all, the men selected to show trainees how it’s supposed to be done. Their skills probably unbalance the scenarios, so if that concerns you, stick with the regular leaders from the boxed games.
The Panzer Lehr Division, sometimes called the 130th Panzer Lehr Division, formed in late 1943 from some smaller Lehr units that had seen action on the Eastern Front plus additional demonstration troops. The division had the pick of troops and officers from the demonstration units, which in turn had the pick of combat veterans. Most of Panzer Lehr’s troops had been decorated for bravery, though the division’s combat record leads one to suspect that at least some of these demonstration troops may have been “promoted” to the school units because of post-traumatic stress and similar disorders.
At least in theory, Panzer Lehr would be issued the very best weapons available to the German armed forces to go with the very best soldiers and officers. In practice that was mostly, but not entirely, true. The tank battalions should have had the very latest Panther and PzKpfw IVH tanks, but when they went into action the division had to “borrow” Panthers from another division, and a number of its medium tanks were actually slightly older and less-capable PzKpfw IVF2 models.
The anti-tank battalion had Jagdpanzer IV tank destroyers rather than the towed guns found in many divisions, and a special detachment of radio-controlled demolition vehicles was also included. The artillery regiment was to include only self-propelled guns, but in practice Panzer Lehr had mostly towed howitzers, including a number of captured ex-Soviet pieces (the gunners preferred these guns to German-made weapons, so this actually reflects a certain level of favoritism).
In other German panzer divisions, one battalion of panzer grenadiers rode in armored half-tracked carriers, while the other three (known as “rubber grenadiers”) went into battle in trucks. All four of Panzer Lehr’s battalions had armored half-tracks, at least when they were alerted for action in Normandy. Within a few days many had to settle for trucks scrounged from supply columns and less-favored divisions.
After participating in the overthrow of the Hungarian government, Panzer Lehr moved to France to become part of the Western Front’s armored reserve. These divisions, intended to form a powerful counter-attacking force that could destroy an Allied beachhead, could only be released for action with the express permission of Adolf Hitler.
When released, the Panzer Lehr Division conducted a series of attacks against the Allied beachheads, just as foreseen by German planners. The division fought the British throughout the month of June 1944, and then the Americans for most of July. By early August there wasn’t much left of Panzer Lehr, and it was removed from the front for rebuilding, to return to action in the Ardennes offensive at the end of the year.
Those battles in June and July 1944 are the basis of the Panzer Lehr scenario set, designed by Mike Perryman. They cover a surprising range of battles large and small; Panzer Lehr like other German armored divisions in Normandy was used in the front lines on defense as well as for counter-attacks. Ten of them feature Panzer Lehr against the British, and in the other 17 they face the Americans.
There’s also a campaign game, titled Brave But Futile, and designed by John Stafford, who developed the other scenarios. In the campaign game, players guide Panzer Lehr and its enemies through a series of scenarios taking place in Normandy, but not based on exact historical engagements. Instead you direct your forces on a simple campaign map and fight as these operational maneuvers dictate. This takes a lot of foreknowledge away from the player, as you’re never completely sure who you’ll be facing and on exactly what terrain (though the choices are limited, so you should have a pretty good idea if you pay attention). Meanwhile, your own forces suffer attrition from the repeated battles, as your losses carry over from one battle to the next, but you also have the opportunity to receive reinforcements and replacements.
The campaign game satisfies the desire of some players to have the results of a scenario have more meaning than just winning or losing the battle in game terms. You also have to preserve your forces for the next battle, sometimes even accepting a lesser level of victory to keep your troops intact. They’re an enormous amount of work to create, however, so we don’t issue them very often.
Panzer Lehr does draw on a couple of older products for maps and pieces. Those will be available again soon in new games, so all of the scenarios will be playable even for new players. It's a fine package, and not to be missed.
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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.