Swallows of Death:
Scenario Preview, Part Four
by Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
One of the first wargames I ever played, the ancient chestnut Panzerblitz, included four squadrons of Soviet cavalry. I thought these the coolest pieces in the set, but they couldn’t really do much cool stuff (except cross green hex-sides!). When I designed the game that became the Panzer Grenadier series, I wanted the system to show horsed cavalry operations well, and that was a design goal just as important as tanks and infantry.
For Panzer Grenadier: 1940: Swallows of Death, designer Philippe Léonard humored me by devoting an entire chapter to Moroccan (and Algerian) cavalry, the famed Spahis. Plus of course new Spahi pieces (include horse machine-guns, a new unit type for the series). They’re elite troops with some of the best morale ratings in the Panzer Grenadier series, but there aren’t nearly enough of them to hold back the German hordes. Let’s have a look at their scenarios.
Spahis in the Ardennes
In the late thirties, French military doctrine opted for cavalry units that mixed motorized and mounted troops. In November 1939, the French high command re-organized its three cavalry divisions into five smaller, allegedly more flexible light cavalry divisions. These divisions (Divisions Légères de Cavalerie, or DLC) included two brigades, one of horsed cavalry and one combining a regiment of truck-borne infantry with another of armored cars, plus a light artillery regiment of 24 guns (a dozen 75mm field guns and a dozen 105mm howitzers).
The 2nd Brigade of Spahis crosses the Swiss frontier. June 1940.
Despite the differing logistical needs and types of mobility, the new light divisions would use their mounted troops to enter the rugged and wooden terrain of the Belgian Ardennes and Luxembourg to meet the panzers. Alongside them operated three independent brigades of Spahis, North African cavalrymen, each of two regiments just like the metropolitan French brigades.
These small regiments (about the size of an infantry battalion), with a weak anti-tank capability and no organic artillery support within the brigade, would be committed piecemeal in the Ardennes and expected to slow any German advance. They accomplished that task thanks to sheer battlefield courage, and at the cost of horrific casualties.
10 May 1940
West of Esch-sur-Alzette, Luxembourg
To help ease their invasion of Luxembourg and slow French reaction, Senior Lt. Werner Hedderich led 125 volunteers onto 25 Fi.156 Fieseler Storch liaison planes, which landed them in three waves at the crossroads of Aessen, north of Soleuvre. Hedderich failed to capture the small convoy spiriting the Grand Duchees of Luxembourg’s children to safety, and some of his men were scattered when their planes crashed. But reinforcements arrived in the form of motorcycle troops, while on the French side, the 1st Brigade of Spahis reinforced by elements of the 3rd DLC arrived to contest the German advance.
Détachement de découverte Nr. 3 (DD3) went through Soleuvre at 0830 and charged towards the Aessen crossroads 500 meters north of the village. A German anti-tank gun knocked out the lead armored car and the rest of DD3 fell back to Soleuvre. French reinforcements arrived piecemeal, and finally at noon the Spahis outflanked and eliminated the German roadblock, killing Hedderich. The 4th Squadron of Spahis reached Limpach, on the road to Luxembourg, where they engaged motorcyclists from the 34th Infantry Division. Thanks to a cavalry charge, the Spahis held Limpach but could push no further as German reinforcements converged on the area.
This is a small scenario, with very mobile forces contesting a series of crossroads. The “airborne” force is on foot now, which will make them vulnerable to those sabre-swinging Moroccans. But the French also have tanks and armored cars and sky-high morale.
The Footbridge at Mouzaive
11 May 1940
Mouzaive, northwest of Bouillon, Belgium
Without having contacted any Germans, the 3rd Spahis Brigade was ordered to fall back to the Semois River from its forward positions in the southern Belgian Ardennes. There, the brigade would realign with the 5th DLC to its right. On the other side of the river, the 1st Panzer Division had successfully traced its way through a series of Belgian demolitions and roadblocks. The Germans fought through solid resistance from the Belgian Chasseurs Ardennais and the French mechanized cavalry, reaching Bouillon in the evening. Withdrawing before the German advance, horsemen of the 2nd Moroccan Spahis Regiment attempted a nighttime crossing of the Semois over a footbridge at Mouzaive.
The Spahis came under fire from Germans already holding the south bank of the Semois when they reached Mouzaive. A lone Spahi bearing a light machine gun dashed across the bridge and became a one-man bridgehead. The rest of his squadron made it across under his covering fire, with the loss of just five men. After that narrow escape, the Spahis pulled back to Sugny and did not try to return and drive off the Germans or blow up the bridge. The Spahis would pull back to the Meuse River and try to stop the Germans there.
The Germans are badly outnumbered, but they’re behind a Major River and the French have just one engineer – they’re going to have to use their mobility (they’re riding motorcycles!) to anticipate the French crossing attempts and get there first. But the French and Moroccans are pretty determined to get across the river.
12 May 1940
With the Germans having penetrated the French lines at Sedan and threatening to make a major breakthrough, the French High Command ordered 5th DLC on the Belgian border to pull back to the Maisons fortes line. These blockhouses located behind the Franco-Belgian border, camouflaged as civilian houses, mounted machine guns and anti-tank guns to cover the few roads leading to Sedan through the forest. However, the fortress troops manning these strongpoints had already been ordered to cut off the roads by blowing up demolition charges and then to withdraw. Since the 3rd Brigade of Spahis had retreated without orders, it was sent back to occupy the Maisons fortes.
When the Spahis arrived at Maison Forte Number 6, they found it abandoned and its 25mm anti-tank removed. They prepared to defend the site anyway, and in the evening a German recon force approached the bridge and a pair of armored cars open fire on the blockhouse. The Spahis waited until the Germans left their vehicles to examine the little fortress, and then mowed them down. The surviving Germans withdrew and the Spahis also left that night to resume their positions behind the Meuse River.
This is just a small scenario, with a squadron of Spahis (a large company) facing off with two companies of their nemesis, German motorcycle troops. The Germans hope to motor on past the French casemates, but the Moroccans aren’t in a mood to let that happen.
The Ardennes Canal
14 May 1940
The German 1st Panzer Division crossed the Meuse River at Sedan on the 13th and established a small bridgehead on the south bank. On the next morning they fought off counter-attack from French armor, and in the confusion the French cavalry units defending the bridges across the Ardennes Canal at Omicourt and Malmy left those bridges unguarded or even withdrew. At mid-morning, a few German panzers tried to cross the bridge at Malmy supported by “Bufla” 88mm self-propelled guns.
The weak elements from the 5th DLC, ordered to hold the bridge at Omicourt, instead retreated without orders. Some squadrons of the 3rd Brigade de Spahis rushed to reinforce the canal line. At 0930, the Germans attacked from the Malmy bridge but the cavalrymen withstood the assault until more Germans crossed the canal at Omicourt to attack from their north flank. However, the road to Vendresse remained strongly defended by numerous French anti-tank guns and artillery. They stopped the panzers, and even conducted several counter-attacks aimed at the Malmy bridge. Repeated Stuka attacks on Vendresse (including a deadly strike on the German headquarters) and flanking moves by German troops eventually broke the French wall of fire. The French fell back on their second line of defense, but the Germans had lost too many men and tanks and advanced no farther than the outskirts of Vendresse.
This is a big scenario. The Germans have a large combined-arms force with plenty of tanks, and the French have Moroccan cavalry (plus artillery, anti-tank guns and an absolutely useless FT17 tank). The Germans have a lot of force, but they also have a great many objectives if they want to win this one.
Sacrifice at La Horgne
15 May 1940
La Horgne, France
The small village of La Horgne, about twenty kilometers south of Charleville-Mézières, is the kind of non-descript hamlet that gives no hint of its historical destiny. Located in the heart of a wide clearing, it was well away from any major roads and was of no strategic interest. But on 15 May 1940 it lay on the itinerary of the 1st Panzer Division’s Battle Group Krüger. The French needed time to bring reinforcements to the Rethel area. The badly-depleted 3rd Brigade of Spahis would have to hold out for 24 hours at La Horgne.
The epic stand of the Spahis at La Horgne would become one of the legendary feats of arms of Moroccan and French military history. The Moroccan and Algerian horsemen sacrificed themselves in ten hours of heavy fighting. The brigade suffered 30 percent casualties, with both regimental commanders killed at the head of their troops and the long-time brigade commander Col. Olivier Marc badly wounded and captured by the Germans. During the night the survivors broke out of the German encirclement and escaped to fight for the remainder of the campaign.
This scenario is the reason I asked Philippe to design 1940: Swallows of Death. It’s an epic tale of tides of evil breaking against a determined, out-numbered and out-gunned defense, all on one Panzer Grenadier map board.
Counter-Attack at Voncq
9 June 1940
As the German forces that had made the breakthrough at Sedan continued their march west, the French hastily assembled a new line to stop them. For three weeks the French 36th Infantry Division held the line of the Ardennes Canal against repeated German attacks, but the water levels had dropped and now the Germans could cross it easily, even as the French line became ever thinner. Following a heavy air and artillery bombardment, two fresh German infantry divisions opened a renewed attack across the canal, overwhelming the badly-outnumbered defenders. But the cavalry was coming.
Germans infiltrated across the canal and attacked the French artillery batteries – the foundation of French defensive practice – supporting 36th Infantry Division’s infantry. The Spahis could not arrive in time to save the guns, and in all the 24th Field Artillery and 224th Heavy Artillery Regiments lost 16 pieces, though two of the four batteries overrun destroyed their guns before the Germans could take them.
The French start out in a very vulnerable position, with a bunch of artillery (four batteries’ worth) on the board and not nearly enough infantry to protect them from the horde of Germans who have them pretty much surrounded. But help is on its way, including Moroccan infantry and cavalry, and a whole battalion’s worth of tanks (those guys aren’t Moroccan, but they’re going to be welcome).
And that’s it for Chapter Four. Next time, Chapter Five.
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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 some of them are actually good.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children, and new puppy. He misses his lizard-hunting Iron Dog, Leopold.
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