Lithuania’s Iron Wolves:
Scenario Preview, Part Two
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
I organized Panzer Grenadier: Lithuania’s Iron Wolves into five “campaigns,” each pitting the Lithuanian Army (the self-proclaimed “Iron Wolves” of the title) against one of the threats to the small nation’s independence. In Campaign One, they face a Polish invasion after rejecting the ultimatum delivered in March 1938 (in reality, they meekly backed down). In Campaign Two, the resist a German invasion after the demand to cede Memel-Land to the Nazis (again, in reality, they backed down).
Lithuania’s Iron Wolves uses the sheet of pieces from the old Iron Wolves expansion; we had plenty of them still in the warehouse. When pandemic-induced shutdowns made it appear that we would not be able to make new game pieces for many months, we activated our emergency plan and dusted them off for use in a new book.
That allowed me to write a new set of stories, something I didn’t do the first time around (the whole project was pretty much an artifact of my depression). Starting over was much more fun, and rather than build just one story, I decided to go with five, to cover all of the potential campaigns Lithuania could have waged during this period. I like the result very much; now I just have to convince gamers to play with Lithuanians.
Let’s have a look at the second of those stories.
Lithuania took a serious risk when it rejected German demands for return of Memel-Land, known as the Klaipeda Region to the Lithuanians. With so much of the small nation’s economy dependent on the area, both for its newly-modernized port and its textile industries, the nation’s leaders felt they had no choice but to fight.
The German Army, only a few years removed from the limitations of the Weimar years, was not yet the potent force that taught the world the word “blitzkrieg.” If the Lithuanians could hold onto at least some of the territory, they might be rescued by foreign intervention. Just who would fight the Germans on behalf of Lithuania, while allowing Germany to absorb the remainder of Czechoslovakia, was never stated in Lithuanian planning but probably meant France, with whom Lithuania had no alliance and fairly distant relations.
Just in case you weren’t paying attention: This never happened. Lithuania did not resist the German demands.
Over the Neman
Memel/Klaipeda itself lay some distance up the shore of the Curonian Lagoon from the mouth of the Neman River (the Memel River to the Germans), which formed the boundary between Memel-Land and German-ruled East Prussia. The river would be the first physical barrier to the German invasion, and the Lithuanians needed to stand there for at least a while if they wished to hold the territory.
The new German panzer force was not yet the powerful iron fist that would crush army after army, and the 4th Panzer Brigade was a pure tank force that would later be divided between the ad-hoc Kempf and 10th Panzer Divisions for the invasion of Poland. The Lithuanians could not keep the Germans from crossing the Neman, but they did bottle up their bridgehead and prevent a lightning advance into the interior. That stand would allow the Lithuanians to fight again.
This is a big scenario, a panzer-led German attack across a river against a prepared Lithuanian defense. The German tanks are all light tanks, which means the Lithuanian 37mm guns can take care of them if they come within range. The Germans have numbers on their side and artillery, but the Lithuanians have that river barrier and morale is even. This will be a tough fight for everyone.
Boasting aside, the German Wehrmacht was not ready for war in the spring of 1939; both Czechoslovakia and Lithuania folded in the face of a bluff. Lithuania did not have the force to defend its entire frontier with East Prussia, but neither did the Germans have the ability to mount a full-scale invasion of even such a small country. The panzers could not be everywhere, and at the eastern end of Memel Land the Germans attacked with a second-line infantry division.
The slow-moving German attack, better suited to 1914 than to 1939, got over the river and slowly pushed the Lithuanians back but could not force a breakthrough. The Germans could win this war through sheer force of numbers deployed into set-piece attacks, but that was not what their Supreme Leader had decreed. Infantry attacks were not part of modern warfare.
The Germans have low morale but massive numbers, and they’ll have to use them to grind their way past the Lithuanian dense. The Lithuanians have the river to help them once again, with better morale and leadership, and at least this time there are no panzers.
The Germans undertook their invasion with limited forces, using the divisions deployed in East Prussia or raised there from reservists and Landwehr. Those formations included the German Army’s only cavalry brigade, which moved across the Neman at a crossing contested only by border guards. Lithuania’s lone cavalry brigade rode swiftly to seal off the breakthrough.
Lithuania, like Poland, had a long cavalry tradition and, like the Poles, had gained a great deal of battlefield experience in their 1919 war against the Soviet Union. The German cavalry, on the other hand, slightly outnumbered the Lithuanians but were not nearly as skilled at their craft. The Lithuanians routed the German horse, taking back their gains and restoring the Lithuanian lines.
We had to have a cavalry-versus-cavalry scenario. Here the Germans have the numbers, a lot of numbers, but they really suck. The Lithuanians can win this, but they have to use their quality to defeat German quantity.
At the insistence of Adolf Hitler and his henchman Heinrich Himmler, the invasion of Lithuania included a motorized regiment of the Nazi Party’s militia, the Waffen SS. Once the regular army had gained a bridgehead over the Nemanus, the militiamen were introduced to exploit the opening. Once again, the Lithuanian mobile reserve rode to the scene to put things to rights.
The Lithuanians caught the militiamen still in their bivouacs as though they had set out on a peacetime maneuver. They sabered hundreds of Aryan warriors as they stumbled out of their tents and destroyed or drove away most of their vehicles. It was an inauspicious start for the Waffen SS.
The SS militia would have been part of nay German military action against Lithuania, so of course I had to include a scenario where the Lithuanians get to stomp all over them. The Germans can win the scenario by avoiding that fate.
The Lithuanians had prepared their small army to face a tank-equipped enemy, and their infantry had adequate numbers of 37mm guns that were perfectly adequate against the German light tanks. And they had tanks of their own, which were adequate to match the German vehicles or perhaps even a little better. That would be decided when the Lithuanian Armored Detachment counter-attacked the advancing panzers.
Lithuania’s Czech-built LTL tanks had a 20mm autocannon just like the German Panzer II light tank, but were larger and better-protected, with a superior weapon as well. They shot up the panzers, stifling the German advance and giving the Lithuanian populace a badly-needed victory in the face of the oncoming German advance. The Lithuanian Army was fighting well, but they faced very long odds.
I wasn’t going to miss including battles between crappy tanks in Lithuania’s Iron Wolves; since I got to write the background stories, I wrote in tank battles. The Lithuanians have better tanks and better crews; the Germans aren’t yet up to speed on this whole panzer thing while the Lithuanians have had an armored branch since 1923 and the difference shows.
Back to Memel
The Germans could take Memel and its hinterland, but that did not mean the Lithuanians would accept the loss. When the German invasion of Poland sparked the immediate French offensive promised by the Franco-Polish alliance, the Germans faced two active fronts at once. When they quickly pulled their mobile formations out of Poland to turn back the French invasion of the Saar, and the Lithuanians took advantage of their distress to recover Klaipeda/Memel.
Lithuania’s good military performance in March bred overconfidence, and the troops that had stood their ground defensively were much less successful when attacking. The Germans help onto Memel, and Lithuania had re-ignited a war that it could not hope to win. Their best hope now was for the French and Poles to win the war for them, and try to seize their lost lands when a better opportunity arose.
The Lithuanians get to go on the offensive this time; I had to stretch the story some to make this scenario sort of fit. But I wanted one where Lithuanians attacked Germans, and here we have it. The Lithuanians have tanks, if you can call them that, and a massive edge in numbers. But they also have to achieve a lot with those forces.
The German Army was not yet ready for blitzkrieg, and the Lithuanians managed to limit their gains to just the Memel-Land - the territory the Germans had demanded from the start. The cease fire reached in late March left the disputed lands under German control, but Lithuania had gained an implacable enemy at the cost of thousands of casualties, and failed to hold any of the ground they had died to defend.
Lithuania would have had no hope of resisting a full-scale German invasion, but Germany did not have the means to mount such an offensive from the isolated province of East Prussia. Troops had to be moved there by sea, which meant that any such deployment would be easily detected by foreign observers and would be read by the Poles and their Western Allies as evidence of a coming offensive. The only real hope the Lithuanians had was to face a limited German invasion of only a few divisions.
Did Lithuania’s leaders make the right choice in handing over Memel to the Germans? It probably didn’t matter; the Germans would have taken it anyway and possibly all of Lithuania. Whether they saved themselves any death and destruction is impossible to know, but Lithuania would suffer a great amount of both in the years that followed.
By writing the story so that the Germans could only apply some of their advantages against the Lithuanians, the Iron Wolves have a chance to fend them off. And we get a cavalry fight and a battle between crapulent tanks. That’s the mix I went for with all of the stories; none of the scenarios are very small, since there’s no need for an introduction to the game system in what’s essentially an expansion to an expansion (The Deluge).
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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.