Lithuania’s Iron Wolves:
Scenario Preview, Part Three
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
We wouldn’t have made Panzer Grenadier: Lithuania’s Iron Wolves if we hadn’t already had the playing pieces in the warehouse. From another perspective, that meant that we definitely were going to make Lithuania’s Iron Wolves. Either way, that gave me the freedom to make the book I wanted to make.
While I was tempted to try to throw something together quickly and be done with it, I crafted five separate stories for Lithuania’s Iron Wolves, together with historical background pieces explaining where these alternative histories became alternative. That allowed me to pit the Lithuanians against all three of their predatory neighbors (Poland, Germany, the Soviet Union), one each on the attack and the defense against the Poles and the Soviets, once on the defensive against the Germans. That gave a nice mix of different kinds of scenarios, letting the Lithuanians attack and defend.
Let’s look at the third of these campaigns, in which Lithuania joins the German attack on Poland in September 1939:
Germany gave no hint to the Lithuanian government that it intended to attack Poland, but as August 1939 wore on the excellent Lithuanian military intelligence service gleaned overwhelming evidence that their much larger neighbor prepared for war. The Poles had also opened secret mobilization, which was no secret to the Lithuanian spies in their midst.
With their two larger neighbors preparing for war, the Lithuanian government ordered its own army to mobilize. An additional 55,000 men brought the three infantry divisions up to full strength and provided second-line security forces for the interior. As the Germans had no forces poised to attack Lithuania, all three divisions plus the cavalry brigade and armored detachment were deployed facing the ancient capital of Vilnius, still held by the Poles.
The Lithuanians expected the Poles to be defeated, but Army commander Stasys Rastikas intended to wait until the Polish regular army formations stationed in Vilnius had left for the main front before crossing the border. The Lithuanian general also wanted clear indications that Germany would win this war decisively; it would not do to capture Vilnius only to lose it in a crushing counter-attack.
President Smetona wavered in his willingness to enter the war. Lithuania had no assurances of German support, and no promise that the Germans would honor Lithuania’s conquest. Those were put to rest on the morning of the German invasion, when German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop made a surprise visit to the provisional capital of Kaunus to urge Lithuania to join the assault on Poland.
For several days, the Lithuanians haggled. They wished a formal alliance, guarantees of military and economic aid, and the Vilnius and Suwalki regions. Ribbentrop met most of their demands, and seven days after the Germans crossed the Polish border the Lithuanians did so as well.
The Lithuanians hoped to time their attack to commence after the elite Polish 1st “Legion” Infantry Division had left its home station in Vilnius. The chaos engendered by the German invasion meant that one regiment had not yet departed when the Lithuanians crossed the border onto Polish soil. The Legion would resist them.
The 1st Infantry Division was considered the toughest unit in the Polish Army, and it put up fierce resistance to the Lithuanian advance. The tiny Lithuanian tanks made little impression on the Poles, and at the cost of some losses the Poles held their lines against superior enemy numbers.
This is a big scenario, with the Lithuanian infantry (everyone in the set) facing off with the crack Polish Legion. The Lithuanians do have tanks, such as they are, and numbers on their side. But the Poles are tough, and it’s going to be hard to push them out of their positions.
The last-minute nature of Lithuania’s intervention in the September Campaign made it almost impossible for German ground units to fight alongside the Lithuanians. The 1st Cavalry Brigade was present near the front and not closely engaged with the Poles, and to show solidarity with the Lithuanians it moved from East Prussia to join the Lithuanian Cavalry Brigade’s move into Polish territory.
The Axis side had numbers, even if most of those came from the hapless German cavalry brigade, and managed to bottle up the Poles and push them back. The Polish cavalry had spent nearly two decades preparing for the next clash of sabers, and dealt out more punishment than they suffered, but they could not overcome odds of two to one.
I thought the big cavalry-vs.-cavalry scenarios in Infantry Attacks: Fall of Empires were fun, so I added a big one to Lithuania’s Iron Wolves - every CAV piece from Fire in the Steppe (the German ones), The Deluge, 1940 (the German ones) and of course Lithuania’s Iron Wolves in a mass saber-swinging brawl. Players will quickly note that the German cavalry just isn’t that good.
Poland’s two independent tank battalions deployed to face the German onslaught as best they could, but that still left the newly-formed 21st Tank Battalion with its French-made Renault R35 tanks. The Poles hadn’t really wanted them, and the battalion was not ready for action when the Germans attacked. Against a perceived lesser opponent like the Lithuanians, the new battalion seemed a suitable reinforcement.
The tiny tank battle would get little mention in post-war histories; the relatively heavy armor of the Polish Renaults made them nearly invulnerable to the Lithuanian tanks’ 20mm autocannon. But the Lithuanians were much faster, and used that advantage to gain clear shots at the Polish tanks’ rear or side flanks. The Poles retreated, leaving several smoking wrecks behind, and the Lithuanians celebrated a victory.
There’s a small subset of Panzer Grenadier players who love battles between crappy tanks. This book is for them.
The tough Polish 1st Infantry Division moved away from Vilnius by rail soon after the start of the German invasion, leaving defense of the area to the hastily-mobilized 35th Reserve Division. Made up mostly of KOP border guards, the 35th was not nearly as formidable an opponent as the Pilsudski Legion. But with thousands of hastily-enrolled militia fighting alongside them, the Polish defenders of Vilnius (Wilno in their language) prepared to defend the ancient city.
The Poles fought hard against the invaders, but it was a doomed resistance and the Lithuanians steadily drove the Poles out of their positions and back into the suburbs of Vilnius. Knowing that the Lithuanians would not bombard their ancient capital - they had even begged the Germans not to bomb the city - the Polish defenders prepared to contest it house by house. But the Smigly-Rydz government ordered them to surrender the city rather than incur massive civilian casualties. Two weeks after crossing the border, the Lithuanians staged a triumphal entry into Vilnius.
The Poles call out their militia to fight the Lithuanian onslaught. It’s a relatively small battlefield with a lot of troops on it; the Lithuanians have their crappy little tanks and the Poles have the Polish Home Army. Which isn’t quite a fair trade, but there it is.
Lithuania found military success during her brief intervention in the September Campaign, securing Vilnius with her own forces and thereby making it more difficult for the Germans to hand it over to the Soviet Union. The secret Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact had placed Vilnius on the Soviet side of the dividing line, and Great Stalin expected the agreement to be carried out to the letter. From the German perspective, nothing good could come of a border war between the Soviets and their new Lithuanian satellite, and Ribbentrop now modified the agreement to give the Soviets a slightly larger piece of Poland instead of Vilnius and its hinterland.
Lithuania had made a bargain with the devil. Soon enough, he would demand his price.
After defending themselves against overwhelming numbers in the first two campaigns, this time the Lithuanians get to do some wiping out. But the Poles are pretty tough, and the Lithuanians have no Stukas and very few panzers. But they do have cavalry.
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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 a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects.
People are saying that a few of them were actually good. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold believes himself an iron wolf.