Lithuania’s Iron Wolves:
Designer’s Preview

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
November 2020

For a country that didn’t fight during the Second World War (though many of her people did), Lithuania had a great many enemies. That’s probably why I decided to create a Panzer Grenadier expansion based on the Lithuanian Army and the battles it never fought.

Long ago, the old Avalanche Press had a series of downloadable game expansions. They were supposed to be interesting extras, covering topics we would never, ever think of committing to print (these days, the Golden Journal fills that role). But stupidly, I let a handful of fans talk me into committing them to print. And so, many years later we have a stockpile of light-green Panzer Grenadier pieces for the Lithuanian Army. Rather than throw them out, I decided to build a small scenario book around them, and that became Lithuania’s Iron Wolves.

T22While making them wasn’t the smartest business move in the history of both Avalanche Presses (among a long list of not-smart moves), they exist and that was an opportunity to have some fun with them that’s not likely to repeat itself. And that is what I proceeded to do.

Lithuania faced three far more powerful enemies: Nazi Germany, quasi-fascist Poland and the communist Soviet Union. Only on the northern border with Latvia did the Lithuanians face a friendly neighbor (and yes, I sketched out the Panzer Grenadier version of the Latvian Army and somehow restrained myself from publishing that one). So in Lithuania’s Iron Wolves we have five chapters: one each with the Germans and the Poles serving as Lithuania’s enemies, two for the Soviets, and one for the partisan war.

37mmThe original Lithuanian supplement, titled simply Iron Wolves, had ten scenarios scattered across all four of those topics. I expected to have to replace them, but on breaking them out and working them over, I decided that all of them were worth keeping. They all needed some updating, since they draw on games no longer in print for map boards and/or pieces, but that wasn’t too big of a deal. The old scenarios followed the traditional shotgun approach, without much of a theme to tie them together (other than the Lithuanian part). So each chapter of the new book has at least one of them.

While Lithuania did not fight its enemies, war seemed a near-certainty and the Lithuanian Army - three infantry divisions, a cavalry brigade, an armored detachment and some supporting units - certainly existed. So the scenarios aren’t exactly made up out of whole cloth; Lithuania had very clear plans for defense and a near-certainty that they wouldn’t work.

Heavy machine gunThe first opponent would have been Nazi Germany. In March 1939, the Germans demanded the return of Memel, or Klaipeda in Lithuania, and its hinterland. That would deprive Lithuania of her only port and render its one-ship Navy and her small merchant and fishing fleets homeless. The Lithuanians decided not to fight, given the odds and absolute lack of foreign support as the German occupation of Bohemia and Moravia (the remnants of Czechoslovakia) filled the headlines.

The German Army in the spring of 1939 was not yet the force that overthrew France a year later. The Lithuanians aren’t that badly outmatched on a unit-per-unit basis; they just don’t have nearly enough units. The Germans had no non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union at this moment, but the Lithuanians had little hope of foreign help from any quarter and gave in to Hitler’s demands.

LTLIn our chapter, there are six scenarios. The Lithuanians get to counter-attack with their cavalry brigade, but also have to face the proto-Blitzkrieg wave of Panzer I tankettes and the sheer grinding numbers and firepower of the German infantry. The Germans have more and more powerful artillery, more support weapons, and just plain more of everything. It’s hard to evaluate the performance of an army that didn’t fight, but we’ve made the assumption here that the Lithuanians would be as brave as the Poles six months later.

Next up, the Lithuanians have to face the Poles in six more scenarios. Having robbed Lithuania of its only seaport, the Germans urged their small neighbor to join their assault on Poland in September 1939 but did not make the offer until their attack was already underway. Lithuania had a serious grudge against Poland, which had seized her ancient capital, Vilnius, in 1920 and formally incorporated they city and its hinterland in 1922. Vilnius’ Lithuanian-speaking population totaled six percent of the whole at the time, but that didn’t soothe Lithuanian rage.

CavalryWhile the Poles were outgunned by the Germans, the Polish Army of 1939 was pretty good and they’re a stout opponent for the Lithuanians, who are on the operational offensive. The Lithuanians are a determined lot themselves - we’re going with the thesis that a war for Vilnius would have been popular - and get to use their cavalry and their small armored force against their Polish counterparts.

One benefit of the Polish seizure of Vilnius, deeply unappreciated by the Lithuanians at the time, was that it shielded Lithuania from a direct border with the Soviet Union. That ended when the Soviets annexed the Wilno (Vilnius) Voivodeship in September 1939, and handed a slice of the territory to Lithuania a month later. But that gift proved poisonous; in June 1940 the Soviets presented Lithuania with an ultimatum that led to outright annexation two months later. Once again, Lithuania did not resist.

75/97In our third chapter, once again of six scenarios, they do. Dictator Antanas Smetona wished to fight, but the Lithuanian opposition (the semblance of democracy remained) took the opportunity to try to overthrow him. The Soviets already had 18,000 troops on Lithuanian soil under the October 1939 agreement and 200,000 more ready to enter the country, so it would have been a forlorn fight. But that doesn’t stop us from playing it out.

The Soviets have numbers, but the Red Army of Workers and Peasants has a number of problems and the Lithuanians are full of fight (well, we assumed that they would have been). Soviet numbers are mitigated by poor coordination, particularly between tanks and infantry, and the Lithuanians have anti-tank guns capable of handling the BT and T-26 tanks that equip the Soviet tank brigades.

FT17Soviet annexation came about as part of the Nazi-Soviet pact that divided Eastern Europe into spheres of influence. Initially Lithuania lay on the German side of the dividing line, but when the Lithuanians refused to join the assault on Poland a modification swapped Lithuania for a larger piece of Poland. Had the Lithuanians attacked Poland in 1939, they very obviously would have been called on to join the attack on the Soviet Union in 1941.

Chapter Four likewise has six scenarios, with the Lithuanians on the attack against the Soviets. They’ve picked up some better tanks (Czech-made vehicles desired by the Lithuanians but not delivered before things fell apart) but they lack the firepower to sweep the Red Army away. It’s a fairly even fight between the Lithuanians and the Soviets, with the crack cavalry brigade once again the exception.

InfantryOur final chapter has just one scenario, based on a battle that actually happened between the Nazi-sponsored Lithuanian Defense Force and the Polish Home Army. There’s no battle game here of course, since there’s just the one scenario, but since we had the pieces for it on the sheet it seemed like it needed to be in the book, too.

And that’s Lithuania’s Iron Wolves. It’s a fine set of scenarios, and comes with very nice pieces, and I think it’s safe to say that you’ll never see its like again. Since the battles never actually took place (except that last one) I had the freedom to balance them for competitive play, and to include whatever size I wished. So they vary from small affairs to some really large ones including a couple big enough for good team play.

You can order Lithuania's Iron Wolves right here.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, 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. Leopold believes himself an iron wolf.