Lithuania’s Iron Wolves:
Publisher’s Preview

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
June 2023

Sometimes we get to forget our bad ideas, to pretend they never happened. And sometimes they stare you right in the face whenever you open the warehouse loading doors and see the stacks of boxes of game pieces, big heavy cartons holding light-green pieces for an old Panzer Grenadier expansion called Iron Wolves.

We put them to use as part of a new book called Lithuania’s Iron Wolves. The old version was just a thin comb-bound booklet with ten scenarios and a dozen pages; I wasn’t really satisfied with it when it was new, but at least I stopped myself before designing the sequels on Latvia and Estonia - I was, at one time, set on designing a whole series called “Phantom Armies.” The original Iron Wolves started as a download, and really should have just stayed there, but I gave in to a small number of loud pleas for “real counters.”

InfantryThose real pieces are really well-made, so I couldn’t justify throwing them away. There are 107 Lithuanian regulars, 30 pieces for the collaborationist Lithuanian Home Guard, and 28 for the Polish Home Army. That’s a fine set to weave some Panzer Grenadier stories.

The Lithuanian Army portrayed in Lithuania’s Iron Wolves is pretty much the actual, Lithuanian Army of 1939-1940. They get a few tanks that they ordered, or contemplated ordering, but never actually received. Otherwise it’s an historical order of battle.

FT17Lithuanian infantry isn’t as good as German or Polish foot soldiers, and a little better than the Red Army (their factors are the same, but the Lithuanians are usually somewhat better led and motivated). Lithuanian infantry platoons were large, but had no light mortars. Their standard support weapon is a Swedish-made copy of the French Brandt 81mm mortar, and their machine-gun platoons wield the Vickers medium machine gun. The Lithuanian combat engineers - considered part of the armored branch - are quite good.

Lithuania had an outstanding military intelligence service before the Second World War, and their army leadership was thus well aware of developments in other countries. That’s why they were trying desperately to acquire modern tanks, at which they failed, and modern anti-tank guns, at which they mostly succeeded.

75/97Lithuanian artillery is actually reasonably modern for the armies of Eastern Europe. The standard light artillery piece is the ubiquitous French 75, with some Imperial Russian 76.2mm M1902 field guns as well. The medium piece is the French Schneider 105mm howitzer, a very effective and modern piece (it only shows up in the game as off-board artillery). All three Lithuanian divisions had a full allotment of artillery. That puts them on an even footing with the Poles, but like the Poles they have no answer for the German 150mm howitzers that are part of each German division’s artillery.

Lithuanian air power is essentially non-existent. They do have a full brigade of cavalry.

CavalryLithuania did not fight in the Second World War, not as an independent entity anyway. Lithuanians were drafted into the Soviet and German armies (sometimes in the guise of “volunteers”) but Lithuania yielded to German territorial demands without a fight in March 1939, declined German appeals to join the attack on Poland in September 1939, and yielded to Soviet occupation in June 1940.

Those potential turning points offer the hooks for our stories. There are four chapters in Lithuania’s Iron Wolves, each of them concerned with the battles Lithuania did not wage during World War II.

LTLFirst, the Lithuanians resist the March 1938 Polish ultimatum to hand over their capital and largest city, Vilnius. The Poles out-gun the Lithuanians, whose own army command termed victory in the event of a Polish invasion “impossible.” Well, you get to try out that thesis in four scenarios.

Next up, the Lithuanians face German demands that they cede their only port to the Third Reich - having given up their capital, the Lithuanians have signaled their vulnerability to preadots. The German Army of March 1939 is not yet the force that overwhelmed most of Europe, but it’s still much more powerful than the Lithuanian Army. The Lithuanians aren’t looking to defeat Germany, but to delay the invaders long enough to bring them foreign assistance. Given their other predatory neighbors, it might not be all that welcome.

T22In Chapter Three, the Lithuanians square off once more against Poland. This time the Lithuanians are on the attack, joining the September 1939 German invasion of Poland in an attempt to wrest Vilnius back from their rivals. The Lithuanians aren’t as potent as the Poles, even if they do have a handful of tanks, but they do get occasional German support.

Heavy machine gunThe fourth scenario set forces the Lithuanians to defend against Soviet invasion in June 1940. Dictator Antanas Smetona wanted to fight, but his military and political leaders believed resistance to be futile. The Red Army is only a few months removed form its dismal performance in the Winter War, but it brings firepower to the battlefield that the Iron Wolves are hard-pressed to match.

37mmWe’ve been using the story-arc format for Panzer Grenadier for a few years now, and I like it very much both as a storytelling device and as a means to weave more history into the games. I found it difficult to craft good alternative history games before we hit on this formula; the “shotgun” approach can work for historical events after a fashion, since there’s a framework already there. A series of scenarios with no link between them seems kind of thin to me, when the events never actually happened. It gives no context as to why the battles are happening.

Working with the story-arc frame, you get to tell the story as the scenarios unfold, and so the action makes much more sense. Scenario design flows much more smoothly, since it’s a series of events rather than separate incidents, and that makes the story flow naturally, too. And then it wraps up with a battle game that ties the scenarios together.

I wrote a fifth chapter, but had to drop it from the book because it overran the available space. So I wrote a sixth as well, and put them in a Campaign Study, Legend of the Iron Wolf. In Chapter Five, the Lithuanians are back on the offensive, once again alongside the Germans as they help invade the Soviet Union in June 1941. There are 22 tank units on that sheet of light green pieces, and some of them are actually good. This is the opportunity to use them.

Chapter Six (from Legend of the Iron Wolf) puts the Lithuanians on the other side, defending against Operation Barbarossa. The Germans are at peak proficiency; the Lithuanians are probably in better shape than the Red Army but they are facing an unstoppable force that they must stop.

I did have fun with Lithuania’s Iron Wolves; the result is a good book built around good stories, far better than what we released a dozen years ago. And it was probably good for me to confront that relic. Sometimes you just have to face the demons of the past and conquer them. I think you’re going to like the result.

You can order Lithuania's Iron Wolves right here.

You can order Legend of the Iron Wolf 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 an unknowable number of books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife and three children. He misses his dog, Leopold; Leopold believed himself an iron wolf.

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