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Imperial Marines:
Designer’s Preview

Imperial Marines is a small Panzer Grenadier expansion set produced exclusively for the Gold Club and found in the Dog Days 2016 Golden Journal. It tells a story from our Second Great War setting, in which Woodrow Wilson negotiated an end to the First Great War in late 1916 and the Empires (including their colonies) survived for another generation, only to wage another great war.

The Imperial German flag returned to New Guinea and the Northern Solomon Islands in the summer of 1917. The brief Australian occupation of the colony had done some limited damage to government buildings, and several private businesses had been looted, but the Australian government quietly paid for repairs and by the end of the year the colonial administration had resumed all operations.

Over the next two decades the colony shared in the Empire’s economic prosperity, exporting coconuts, cocoa, tea, canned fish and palm oil but particularly copper. German immigrants flowed into the colony and a school system sprang up across the islands and mountains to integrate the local population into colonial life. Voting rights based on a German-language literacy test and minimum tax burden assured the trappings of democracy without actually extending full civil rights to any more than a handful of indigenous Papuans – most of them very pro-German employees of the colonial government or military.

To defend their colony, the German Navy stationed a strong squadron of cruisers and an elderly aircraft carrier at their well-equipped base of Rabaul. Land defenses lay in the hands of the New Guinea Brigade of six battalions: two of long-service Imperial Marines, two of East African askaris and two of locally-raised Papuan Schutztruppe. Imperial Marines also manned the machine-gun, engineer and artillery battalions that rounded out the large brigade. Drawing on the experience of German East Africa during the First Great War, stocks of food, ammunition, fuel and other supplies had been laid in to allow the colony to defend itself for at least a year.

When war returned in the late summer of 1940, the brigade expanded to a full division with the addition of two more Papuan battalions, one of German Landwehr reservists and a second battalion of artillery manned by reservists and equipped with new 105mm howitzers purchased from the ever-helpful Americans.

Mobilization brought in more than additional manpower: elephants working on the palm oil plantations of the mainland and the island of New Britain also joined the cause along with their mahouts. The elephants had been imported in the 1920’s from India for their ability to perform heavy labor in places where motor vehicles could not venture and a fairly large establishment of working elephants had grown up in the colony over the years.

Despite mobilization, the war’s first few months brought little change to the colony as Germany’s enemies – France, Russia and Italy – had little ability to interfere with such a distant outpost. Merchant ships, most of them flying the American stars and stripes, continued to steam in and out of Rabaul, bringing in rice and coal and oil as well as manufactured goods, and leaving with the colony’s exports.

That changed in April 1941, when Great Britain declared war on Imperial Germany (as well as the rest of the Central Powers). Now German New Guinea faced an enemy across the high, jungle-covered Bismarck Mountains. Australian-ruled Papua New Guinea, the southeastern quarter of the island, had remained a sleepy backwater, with many locals trudging up the narrow trails leading over the mountains seeking the much higher wages found in the German colony. Not wishing to encourage too much cross-border traffic, the German colonial government had done nothing to connect these tracks to the growing network of paved and graveled roads on their side of the border.

When Papuan scouts reported Australian troops moving toward the border, the New Guinea Brigade dispatched the 1st Sea Battalion of Imperial Marines to stop them. The Marines had long experience in the New Guinea jungles and the best weapons that Germany could provide including an attached artillery battery with the new 88mm light field gun. The battalion included three rifle companies plus a reserve rifle platoon, a heavy weapons company with machine guns and mortars, a small helicopter detachment for aerial spotting, and elephants to help move the artillery and supplies up the narrow Kokoda Track.

On the other side of the mountains, the Australians had quickly mobilized their 30th Militia Brigade and sent it across to Port Moresby while the regular divisions of the Australian Imperial Force headed to Egypt to face the Ottoman army assembling in Palestine. Surely those forces would not be required to mop up the small German colony, which had fallen in 1914 to a single battalion of just-enlisted raw recruits and a small mob of semi-organized sailors over a matter of days.

The Australian staff drew up a simple campaign plan. With the German flotilla at Rabaul posing a great danger to any attempt to land on the northern coast of New Guinea or the key island of New Britain (site of Rabaul, the colony’s capital and largest city as well as its military headquarters), a brigade would drive across the Bismarck mountains to the gold-mining center of Wau and then on to the small port of Lae.

The German marines deployed on their own side of the border, near the small station known to the Australians as the Dead Chinaman’s Post. The Australians crossed and began their march on Wau a few hours later. The war for New Guinea had begun.

Notes: When designing alternative history variants for our games, I really try hard to craft the warped history to create interesting game situations. I don’t want them to come across as “same game, different colored pieces.” In the case of Imperial Marines, it’s the Australians on the operational offensive from the start, with numbers on their side but supply difficulties hampering their effectiveness. The Germans are very different from the Japanese: outnumbered, but with very high morale, skills in the jungle and relatively strong firepower. Where the Japanese must rely on their close combat advantages in The Kokoda Campaign and want to bring on assault combat whenever possible, the Imperial Marines have the ability to stand off and win a firefight.

Really though, it’s all about the elephant. I’ve always wanted Panzer Grenadier to include an elephant. So now it does. We won’t be doing many alternative histories for Panzer Grenadier in the future, but when we do they need to include a really fun gonzo factor. I’m aware of no other wargame with both an elephant and a helicopter.

Don’t wait to put the elephant on your game table! Join the Gold Club and find out how to get the Dog Days 2016 Golden Journal.

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.