Tank Battle at Raseiniai:
Publisher’s Preview

When I designed Panzer Grenadier: Fire in the Steppe, I wanted to give it a tight focus on a single battle, so we could use the scenario set to tell a coherent story. The Brody-Dubno tank battles of June 1941 made for an exciting story, with plenty of action and the opportunities for both sides to attack and defend.

Fire in the Steppe has some pieces that we didn’t use in its scenarios, chiefly the Czech-made PzKpfw35t and PzKpfw38t light tanks. These vehicles weren’t used by the German panzer divisions at Brody-Dubno, but they did equip several of those that fought in Lithuania at the same time. Our Campaign Study format – a small booklet with 10 or 12 scenarios – lets us look at battles outside those included in any particular game, and it’s perfectly suited for a look at the Battle of Raseiniai, fought in Lithuania in June 1941. And that’s the genesis of Tank Battle at Raseiniai.

A German Pz38t light tank invades Soviet Lithuania.

Like the Southwest Front, which had charge of the Soviet defenses that faced the Germans during the Brody-Dubno tank battles, the Northwest Front had likewise ignored directives from Moscow and done what it could to prepare for the obviously imminent German offensive. Armored reserves moved up to counter-attack the advancing Germans, though they did so without their fuel depots, still located far behind the front lines. Two tank corps had moved up behind the front lines on “exercises,” violating direct orders from Georgi Zhukov, chief of the Soviet general staff.

That put them in position, sort of, to counter-attack the German panzer spearheads soon after they crossed the border into Soviet-occupied Lithuania. The attacks went forward in disjointed fashion, rarely including combined arms, but at least some of them included the unstoppable T34 medium and KV heavy tank, and they kept the Germans occupied for days in and around Raseiniai.

That sacrifice could have bought the Northwest Front significant time to prepare its defenses against the German onslaught. While the German thrust never met its timetable after Raseiniai – Leningrad would not fall during this first offensive – neither did the Soviets make enough use of the opportunity.

The tank battles are pretty interesting in themselves, which is why I marked out the Raseiniai battles some time back as a topic I wanted to address in a Campaign Study. The Soviet tank divisions tried to follow their doctrine of prompt counter-attack, but for the most part were unable to arrive on the battlefield in any coordinated fashion and so they went forward as best they could, often with tanks attacking without infantry or artillery support.

The Soviet KV1 heavy tank.

That gave the Germans the chance to use their superior command and control, and extensive combat experience gained against the Poles and the French, to eventually defeat the Soviets. Their Czech-built light tanks are good vehicles, for what they are, but even when new the Czechs had never intended them to serve as main battle tanks. They are roughly a match for the Soviet light tanks that fill the ranks of most Red Army battalions – BT7 and BT5 fast tanks, and T26 light tanks designed for infantry support but pressed into the tank divisions to make up their numbers. The Soviets also have a few T28 medium tanks, infantry support vehicles with tougher armor, but most of those broke down when the tank divisions left their home stations and never made it to the battlefield.

The core of Soviet armored power, though, lay in the brand-new T34 medium tanks and KV1 heavy tanks, and the handful of KV2 heavy breakthrough tanks. The Germans had no answer for these, beyond deployed long-range cannon and heavy anti-aircraft guns (with their high muzzle velocities) in the front lines. Soviet practice distributed these tanks among the existing battalions, alongside the older, smaller models, and the T34 and KV1 crews gleefully rolled over German anti-tank guns to protect the lighter vehicles.

Raseiniai also gave rise to the German myth of the long KV heavy tank rampaging through their rear areas and then holding out alone at a crossroads for hours. That tale come from the memoir of the Austrian panzer general Erhard Raus, commander of the 6th Panzer Division’s motorized infantry brigade during the Raseiniai battles. While some works still claim that this was a KV2 heavy tank, or that its type remains unknown, this isn’t exactly true – Russian historian M.V. Kolomeits identified it as a KV1 in 2013, and even located a picture (below).

The legendary KV of Raseiniai.

In game terms, the T34 and KV1 tanks are quite formidable, with thick armor, good mobility (at least for the T34, which is actually slightly faster than the Czech-made light tanks of the panzer divisions) and powerful armament (with much more firepower than anything a German tank carries). But as the Panzer Grenadier system shows, it’s not all about the hardware.

Soviet formations are difficult to maneuver – their tanks did not carry radios, except for command vehicles, tying them to their commanders. Soviet doctrine held that tank unit commanders, even division commanders, should lead from the front, inside a tank. That meant that they ceded control of their unit as soon as the shooting started. Soviet tanks went into action without their full load of ammunition and minimal opportunities to refuel. And perhaps worst of all, in most units the new tanks went to the new crews, and so they had inexperienced tank commanders and drivers.

The Germans, for their part, are at the peak of efficiency – they’ve had a year to absorb the lessons of the French campaign and fill out their ranks with men and machines. They’re well-led at every level, with excellent tank crews and stout infantry riding along behind them in trucks. The German economy can’t provide them with fully-armored carriers for the infantry, or tanks to match the Soviet monsters, but this is as good as it will ever get for the German Army.

This sort of storytelling, taking a game and extending its story, is exactly what I like about our Campaign Study format. The Raseiniai battles are interesting in their own right, and deserve an intensive look of their own.

You’ll need Fire in the Steppe, and only Fire in the Steppe, to play the scenarios.

You can order Tank Battle at Raseiniai right here.

You can order Fire in the Steppe 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, three children and his new puppy. He will never forget his dog, Leopold.

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