In October 1944, Douglas MacArthur (and a few hundred thousand of his friends) returned to the Philippines, coming ashore on the island of Leyte. Seventy-five years later, we’re returning Panzer Grenadier to the Pacific, with Leyte 1944.
Leyte 1944 is a Panzer Grenader expansion book, with 47 new scenarios by Jay Townsend set during the October-December 1944 campaign on the island of the title. It comes with 88 new die-cut, silky-smooth pieces, but you’ll need Saipan 1944 and Marianas 1944 to play the scenarios.
The campaign is probably better-known for the naval actions that took place just offshore, as the Japanese fleet attempted to disrupt the American landings (and had a fair chance of doing so, despite massive American superiority at sea and in the air). This isn’t our first effort at a Leyte land game; our second game ever, MacArthur’s Return, covered the campaign in a different game system at a very different scale (four kilometers across each hexagon, with almost all of the units representing battalions).
American troops landed on Leyte, a large island in the central Philippines, in October 1944. The Americans initially came ashore with four divisions (all of the from the U.S. Army) to be met by the Japanese 16th Infantry Division. Leyte, much like Saipan, offers a great deal of defensible terrain – mountains, jungles and caves. Unlike Saipan, the campaign would also take place during monsoon season. Both sides poured in reinforcements, and the fighting lasted until December.
At this point in the Pacific War, the United States had gained a great deal of experience in amphibious landings and jungle warfare. The Japanese likewise had done so, but almost all of that experience lay dead on the battlefields of Tarawa, Guadalcanal, New Guinea and dozens of other blood-soaked unpronounceable names. And so they prepared to contest the routes into and across Leyte, without a substantial operational reserve - that would have to come from Luzon.
Fierce Japanese resistance slowed the American advance, and the defenders struck back as best they could, including use of their small number of airborne troops. Most of their tanks remained on the main island of Luzon, but the 16th Infantry Division was well-trained and well-prepared. Reinforcements came almost immediately, and the Japanese contested every foot of the American advance across the island. The last organized resistance ended on the last day of the year, but stragglers continued to wage individual attacks until the very end of the war.
Leyte would cost the Americans 3,504 dead and 11,991 wounded; estimates of Japanese losses vary but exceed 50,000 killed including huge numbers to starvation and disease. Those numbers don’t tell the whole story, as the campaign also consumed half of Japanese air strength in the Philippines and Japanese commander Tomoyuki Yamashita’s commitment of his best divisions to Leyte hamstrung later Japanese efforts to hold the main island of Luzon.
While the Saipan and Marianas maps have the mountains, jungles and beaches needed to show Leyte’s sometimes brutal terrain, Saipan 1944 doesn’t quite have all the pieces for this larger and longer campaign. I wanted the book to only draw on Saipan 1944 and Marianas 1944 for its pieces and maps, and that wasn’t much of a design problem. Leyte 1944 adds 88 new die-cut, silky smooth pieces with the additional troops you’ll need to wage war in the Philippines.
Despite the pleas of Douglas MacArthur, only a handful of Marines saw action in the Philippines and it’s almost exclusively an Army show. So the U.S. has some additional pieces, starting with the paratroopers of the 11th Airborne Division. They get some additional infantry, Sherman tanks and armored cars, and some heavy artillery. The Japanese also add paratroopers to their mix, with some additional tanks, support weapons and Special Naval Landing Force troops.
Leyte 1944 has a much larger scenario section than most of our books; I like to keep the ratio to about half scenarios and half background/support material. The Leyte campaign was far longer than that on any of the Marianas Islands, as the Japanese could reinforce the defenders. And more action means more scenarios, to properly tell the story.
In the first chapter, the Americans fight their way ashore in a series of opposed beach landings (four scenarios). The Army has adopted the amphibious tractors, coordinated offshore bombardment and other techniques pioneered by the Marines; the Japanese have for their part heavily fortified the potential landing zones and backed those defenses with solid infantry. Next, one corps fights their way up the Leyte Valley that splits the island, while the other advances along Highway 2 to the port of Carigara (another 15 scenarios).
In Chapter Two, the Americans close in on the port city of Ormoc, the Japanese base of operations on Leyte. Eleven scenarios take place in the harsh terrain of the Leyte back country, as the Americans fight through the Ormoc Valley and over the ridge lines barring their path to Ormoc.
The Japanese strike back in the third chapter, spearheading their counter-offensive with paratroopers in an effort to capture the key airfields supplying the American spearheads. There are six scenarios, including airborne action (and a Japanese parachute landing) and some airborne-against-airborne fighting as the American 11th Airborne fights back.
Those efforts failed, and in Chapter Four the Americans are pressing the Japanese back into what would be their final perimeter on Leyte, even as they tried to stave off the inevitable with more counter-attacks including additional parachute landings. Eleven more scenarios wrap up the story, ending as on Saipan with a massed banzai charge by the last intact Japanese units on Leyte.
Each chapter also features a battle game, an effective yet simply structure that links the scenarios together if you want to play them out in sequence. You don’t have to play them that way, but it’s pretty easy and gives a fine overview of where the individual scenarios fit in the broader story.
While the book’s overstuffed with scenarios, it’s a fine example of what I want to do with the Panzer Grenadier series: it extends the story of Saipan 1944 while telling its own story, without drawing in bits and parts from a shelf-full of games. It’s a true expansion of Saipan 1944, rather than an attempt to cobble together a new game with assorted parts of others, and as such it works really 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.