Lithuania’s Iron Wolves:
Scenario Preview, Part One
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Panzer Grenadier: Lithuania’s Iron Wolves highlights an army that never fought, taking part in campaigns that never happened (or at least happened without them). Since they never happened, I could craft the scenarios and battle games for interesting situations. Lithuania’s army that never fought is a topic well beyond quirky, so I wanted to balance that with an enticing scenario set. They’re organized into five different alternative-history stories. Let’s have a look at the first of them.
The decision to resist Poland’s ultimatum put the Lithuanian Army in a difficult operational position. The Lithuanians had planned for this moment since losing Vilnius to the hated Poles, and mobilized 55,000 men from the Rifle Association to flesh out the three infantry divisions. While the Poles had numbers, the Lithuanians likewise had a hardened cadre of officers and NCO’s experienced in their own war against the Soviets.
The Lithuanians hoped to delay the Poles along the border, and make their stand on the Nemanus (Nieman, Neman) River in front of the provisional capital, Kaunas. If the fighting could be drawn out, the League of Nations or perhaps the French government might intervene diplomatically to restrain the Poles. The plan also counted on Nazi Germany not taking advantage of the situation to seize Klaipeda.
Staking their claim to Vilnius, or Wilno in Polish, the Polish Army stationed their best unit, the 1st “Legion” Infantry Division, in the contested city. The Polish Legion spearheaded the invasion of Lithuania, rolling forward in what the Polish command believed would be an unstoppable wave. The Lithuanians met them with their own best infantry division, and were fighting on what was indisputably their own soil.
The Lithuanians had spent heavily on defense over the preceding decade, but could do nothing about their small population base and the 1st Legion was easily their best Polish infantry formation. After hours of heavy fighting the Poles broke through the Lithuanian lines and the defenders had to pull away before the Polish cavalry joined the pursuit.
This is a big scenario, an infantry assault by the Poles against a pretty strong Lithuanian defense The Poles have numbers, and their individual units have better firepower than the Lithuanians. The Poles also have better artillery and morale, but infantry attacks are tough propositions in Panzer Grenadier, as they were in the real world.
Lithuania had a cavalry tradition every bit as proud of that of Poland, and it included winged hussars. Between the world wars the Lithuanians failed to pour their scarce resources into a huge cavalry establishment as the Poles did, but their cavalry regiments likewise considered themselves elite. Polish hussars and Lithuanian bajorai had never crossed sabers as part of opposing national armies, but soon did so once the Poles carried through on their threats.
The Lithuanian Cavalry Brigade was smaller than its Polish counterparts, and Lithuania only had one such brigade compared to eleven for the Poles (not all of which participated in the invasion of Lithuania). Despite its undoubtedly high morale, the Lithuanian brigade was seriously outnumbered by the Polish horse and could only delay the invaders for a brief time.
We had to have a Polish-Lithuanian cavalry fight, and here it is. The Poles are better than the Lithuanians and there are more of them, but they have to achieve a lot to win the game. The scenario plays out a lot like the mass cavalry actions of Fall of Empires, with no off-board artillery and all the support right there on the map.
Polish tank strength depended on its Independent Tank Battalions; the 10th Mechanized Cavalry Brigade had not yet been re-organized into the prototype formation it would become by September 1939. Lithuania also hoped to use modern armor to redress its lack of numbers, but had not yet received the new tanks ordered from Czechoslovakia’s CKD combine.
The clash of weak armor went the way of the Poles, who had numbers on their side and somewhat more firepower. The Lithuanians had first received tanks in 1923, a dozen Renault FT-17 light tanks purchased from surplus French Army stocks. That allowed the Lithuanian Army to train with tanks for almost a generation before war came, giving the troops familiarity with the clanking, smoking monsters.
We had to have a crappy tank battle, and here it is. The Poles are on the attack, and their infantry is going to have to carry the load because the tanks just aren’t very good. The Lithuanians have their own tiny armored detachment, and given its age (the Lithuanians had a tank unit for the entire time they had an army at all), the Lithuanians have armor efficiency.
The Kaunas Stampede
To force their will on the Lithuanians, the Poles would have to force their way into the small nation’s provisional capital and largest city, Kaunas. The Nemanus River provided a firm defensive barrier between Kaunas and the 1938 Polish border, and here the Lithuanians would stand to defend their independence.
The Lithuanians fought hard along the river line, supplemented by additional militia formed from surplus Rifle Association men - trained but unorganized reservists. The Poles got across the river at great cost, where the offensive bogged down and French mediators arrived to impose a cease-fire. The Lithuanians had held Kaunas, but Vilnius seemed ever more out of reach.
Another big scenario, this time a contested river crossing with the Lithuanians desperate to hold on and the Poles equally desperate to get across. The Poles have artillery behind them and some air support; the Lithuanians are assisted by a mob of well-armed but poorly-organized militia to help out.
The Polish war machine included Europe’s fifth-largest army, but the impressive numbers of rifles and sabers were not supported by a logistical framework to match. The Polish divisions could push the Lithuanians back from the frontier, but getting over the Nemanus in the face of determined opposition proved beyond their capabilities. While the French team managed to halt the fighting and install an uneasy cease-fire, the failed Polish offensive caused the German leader Adolf Hitler to re-consider proposals to strike first against the French when war came as the Poles were less of a threat to invade German soil than had been assumed.
Polish divisions fought well in September 1939 when allowed to conduct a positional defense; when forced into mobile situations they could not keep up with the fast-moving German mobile formations. Aware of this lack, the Polish Army had tried to establish its own mobile brigades, but none of these would have been ready in March 1938 (and only one was fully operational in September 1939). The Poles hoped that their large cavalry arm could make up for some of that lack, but they did not have the firepower to overwhelm a determined defense.
The first battle game puts the Lithuanians on the operational defensive, against an enemy that is more powerful but not very mobile. The Lithuanians need to delay the Polish advance, and the scenarios reflect that, with the Poles needing to maintain their momentum. We get to use all of that cavalry and the crappy tanks in between a couple of large-scale infantry brawls.
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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.