May Day Golden Journal:
Our May Day 2017 Golden Journal features our first variant for Panzer Grenadier (Modern), as Soviet paratroopers land in the Negev Desert to march on the Israeli nuclear facility at Dimona. This was an option discussed by the Soviet leadership but never actually executed, and for the 50th Anniversary of the Six-Day War we have the pieces to let you try it out in 1967: Sword of Israel.
The Journal includes a set of 24 full-color, laser-cut pieces depicting a Soviet parachute battalion from the elite 103rd Guards Airborne Division. Let’s take a look at what those pieces represent.
The year 1967 marked the last days of the light-infantry oriented Soviet airborne force. Starting in 1968 the paratroopers would receive air-droppable infantry fighting vehicles, man-portable anti-aircraft missiles and pretty fearsome automatic grenade launchers. At the time of the Six-Day War, the airborne still depended on its so-called “winged infantry.”
The Soviet parachute platoon mimicked that of the motor rifle units: three squads, each of nine men, with an RPKS light machine gun for each squad (the motor rifle platoon had the RPK light machine gun, identical except for the folding stock of the airborne weapon). Everyone else in the squad carried the AKMS automatic rifle, an airborne version of the standard AKM (S for Skladnoy, or “folding”) with a downward-folding metal stock in place of the wooden version. Each squad also had one RPG-7 anti-tank rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
Three platoons made up a company, and three companies made up a battalion. Unlike the motor rifle companies, the parachute units had no separate machine-gun platoons: their squad automatic weapons were their only means of heavy support.
By 1967 the airborne had turned in their 82mm mortar tubes and replaced them with a new 73mm recoilless rifle, the SPG-9D Kopye (“Spear”) introduced in 1962. The airborne version (D for “Desant”) had detachable wheels but was otherwise identical to the standard weapon, which was issued in large numbers and sold to Soviet client states around the world.
The Spear had good anti-tank performance, and was chiefly intended to provide protection against armor at ranges beyond those of the rocket-propelled grenade. But it had a useful high-explosive round as well, and could serve as a pocket artillery piece in place of the medium mortars – a role it continues to serve in both uniformed and irregular forces today.
Each parachute battalion also included a “battery” of eight 120mm/M1943 heavy mortars, a weapon more than two decades old at this point but still very effective. The tube is the same as that issued during the Great Patriotic War, but for airborne use the weapon had been made much easier to break into separate loads for transport and so the playing piece can be moved while unlimbered. In game terms the battery is represented by two mortar platoons, and these give the parachutists a great deal of firepower.
The Soviet parachute battalion had three layers of defense against enemy armor: its RGP-7 man-portable rocket launchers (soon to be replaced by the RPG-16D) for close defense, the SPG-9 recoilless rifles for mid-ranged fire, and the AT-3 anti-tank guided missile for use at longer ranges. Known as the “Sagger” to NATO and the “Malyutka” (“Little One”) to the Soviet Army, the AT-3 was a very small weapon carried in what looked like a small suitcase. The operator would guide the missile with a joystick, with three thin wires leading back to the control box. This took a great deal of skill, but if the missile hit it could do tremendous damage to a tank.
Actually hitting a tank could be a dicey proposition, if the targeted tank crew kept their wits. The Malyutka flew at a very slow speed, allowing the crew to spot the incoming missile, take evasive action and fire at the operator – if he dropped the joystick, the missile would crash. Operating a Malyutka required nerves of steel; the joystick could be moved a short distance from the missile launching pad but not very far. The missile also had a “dead zone” of about 800 meters before it became effective – a tank could also charge straight at the missile launch site if it were close enough and become immune to its warhead (and also very dangerous to the operator and his comrades).
The Soviet Army had used the missile for several years before the Six-Day War, but had not yet released it outside the Warsaw Pact in 1967. It was supplied to the Arab armies in huge numbers for the 1973 Yom Kippur War – it was an extraordinarily inexpensive weapon to produce – when it claimed at least 800 Israeli armored vehicles.
Long before the Soviet Army moved to turn its airborne into a modern mechanized air-transportable force, the paratroopers began to receive their own armored support. The ASU-85 assault gun began development in the mid-1950’s and arrived at front-line units by the early 1960’s after the initial design was rejected by the Ministry of Defense.
The small vehicle, based on the PT-76 light tank, had been intended for use by all branches of the Soviet Army, but by the time it reached production status the turretless tank had become an anachronism and only the airborne received the ASU-85. At 15.5 tons it was still a heavy item to be dropped by parachute, but the Soviets had developed high-capacity chutes and special rocket braking systems. By 1962 Soviet and Polish airborne units were tossing the assault guns out of airplanes on a regular basis.
The ASU-85 was built around a modified version of the D48 85mm towed anti-tank gun introduced to the Soviet Army in the 1950’s. While intended to engage hardened targets like bunkers and other fortifications, it had a good anti-tank capability and could be used as a tank destroyer, at least against vehicles other than opposing main battle tanks.
We’re only offering the May Day Golden Journal for a limited time, so if you want these Soviet paratroopers and their little tanks on your game table, you’ll need to hurry up and get that order in. It’s free to members of the Gold Club, unavailable to anyone else.
Don’t wait to put these Soviet paratroopers on your game table! Join the Gold Club and find out how to get it before it goes away forever!
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.