Though it was best known for its major role in the North African Campaign, the 21st Panzer Division were also fierce defenders in Normandy on D-Day.
The Symbol of the 21st Panzer Division
Under the command of Rommel, the 21st were originally one of the two armoured divisions that made up the Deutsches Afrikakorps in the campaigns of 1941-1943. You can read more about the 21st division and its role in Africa here.
The division was reconstituted in June 1943 in Normandy, where it remained in garrison duty until the fated allied invasion of June 6 1944. Had Rommel had his way, the 21st and other Panzer divisions would have been positioned with a mind for coastal defence. Instead, the adopted method was to use them as a counterattack force. Were the former chosen, the outcome of D-Day may have been very different.
If you don’t succeed in throwing the British into the sea we shall have lost the war.
-General Erich Marcks to Colonel Hermann von Oppeln-Bronikowski.
As it was, the 21st Panzer Division was the only German armoured division poised to launch any counterattack during the allied landings on D-Day. They were instrumental in stifling the British hopes of reaching Caen during their initial attack. However, conflicting orders and an impromptu reorganisation of the division, as well as a severe delay caused by having to negotiate the freshly bombed streets of Caen, meant that even the 21st’s reaction to the D-Day landings was far slower than it might have been.
This meant that British armour had time to establish itself on Perriers Ridge. They were able to take out 16 Panzer IVs for no losses. However, PanzerKampfegruppe “Rauch” penetrated around the left flank, finding a gap between British and Canadian forces west of Lion-sur-Mer. The effect was largely psychological, rather than destructive, halting the British advance for the day.
Due to the scattered deployment of the German armoured divisions before D-Day, the breakthrough could not be exploited. No reserves were available to reinforce the 21st. And, upon witnessing the aircraft borne-reinforcements (even though these veered off east), they eventually fell back to just north of Caen. The division’s losses were substantial, having lost 70 of their 124 tanks. Any opportunity to exploit the gap had been permanently lost.
Wrecks of German Tiger I and Panzer IV tanks, Villers-Bocage, France, June 1944.
A Panzer MK IV crew from the 21st Panzer Division enjoying some cigars together in Normandy.
The division continued to operate on the front through the remainder of June and into July. It was all but destroyed in the Falaise Pocket during the closing stages of the Battle of Normandy. Later, The division neglected to take a direct part in the Ardennes Counteroffensive (otherwise known as the Battle of the Bulge), opting instead to provide flanking support fire. This may well have saved it from destruction (if not heavy losses). It did take part in the ill-fated Operation Nordwind, attempting to sever US supply lines to Strasbourg.
In January 1945, the division saw action on the Eastern front but ultimately surrendered to the Red Army on 29 April 1945.
The Panzer IV
The bulk of the Division was made up of the Panzer IV, with a few Panzer IIIs (though these would have been predominantly used in a reconnaissance role). Commanders would typically ride in the ‘H’ Variant of the Panzer IV, with other variants in use including the D through G configurations.
Panzerkampfwagen IV Ausf H of 12. SS-Panzer-Division
By the latter half of the war, roughly half of all German tanks were Panzer IVs. It was the only tank that was in production throughout the length of the war. Originally conceived as an infantry-support vehicle, subsequent versions soon armed it with a 72mm dual-purpose cannon, capable of taking out most enemy armour. With this anti-tank weaponry, the Panzer IV became the German main battle tank of the war.
Major Alfred Becker
Major Alfred Becker
A veteran of the First World War, Becker saw action on the Eastern front. Impressed by his engineering ingenuity, he was soon transferred to France. He was charged with reinforcing the 21st Panzer division with repurposed captured vehicles. He wasn’t limited to French chassis and made use of whatever he could get his hands on. All in all, providing the 21st with about 1800 converted vehicles.
1942 saw Major Becker directing the conversion of around 360 Lorraine armoured carriers into mobile artillery vehicles. He mounted 7.5 cm Pak 40 anti-tank guns and 10.5 cm leFH 18 howitzers to the French tractors and went on to command this motorized assault gun Battalion in Normandy.
Marder I auf Geschutzwagen Lorraine Schlepper (f) – SdKfz 135 lies abandoned in Vesoul, France – 1944.
Transports and Tows
The officers and their staff typically rode into battle on Sd Kfz 251 half-tracks. The 21st had several regiments of Panzergrenadiers or motorized infantry. They were mounted on trucks, or Unic P107 half-tracks if they were available.
In terms of tows, in addition to the aforementioned Lorraine Schleppers, there were additional 75mm PaK 40s, towed by trucks. The division also had access to the dreaded 88s, towed by French Laffly tractors.
Representing the 21st in Bolt Action
The D-Day Overlord Campaign Book theatre selectors include a 21st Panzer Division Panzergrenadier Reinforced Platoon (D-Day) (Page 171). The bulk of this force is composed of Heer Grenadier squads mounted in Regular Sd.Kfz 251/1 ausf D halftracks. To give you a kickstart, we have this highly convenient bundle, netting you a free Armies of Germany supplement.
The next point for assembling a 21st Panzer Division force is, of course, the Panzer IV. The H variant gives you a powerful anti-armour asset for your force.
In Campaign D-Day: Overlord (Page 171) you’ll find a theatre selector that represents the division specifically on D-Day- The Kampfgruppe Oppeln Armoured Reinforced Platoon. The only requirements for this force are three Panzer IVs (Gs or Hs), but combine them with the Panzergrenadiers Starter above and you’ll have a mobile and highly versatile strike force.
If you want to capture some of the unique character the 21st, you can supplement your core force with one (or more!) of Major Becker’s Lorraine Schleppers. Remember that Becker’s creations stemmed from a huge number of captured chassis, so there’s a massive potential to convert this kit to make your force unique!
Want to know about the axis defence of Normandy? With over 200 pages the Campaign Book, written by Robert Vella, allows players to take command of Allied forces assaulting the beaches and inland defences, and those of the axis manning such fortifications. Packed with new, linked scenarios, rules, troop types, and Theatre Selectors, the book provides plenty of options for novice and veteran players alike.