"The Emperor loves me. Oh yes He does, otherwise why would He be so keen to keep me alive?"
- — Sirius Tan, 2nd Calixian Penal Battalion deployed to the Tranch Soot Warrens
A Penal Legion, one of the Legions Penetante, as they are known in Imperial High Gothic, are drawn from Astra Militarum and Planetary Defence Force troops who have committed capital crimes, and had their sentences commuted to life service.
In a desperate universe justice is often harsh and instant, with little consideration given to miscreants and misfits. In the struggle for survival there is no room for individuals who transgress the rigid structures of Imperial society. Such people face servitude for life in the Penal Legions.
There are a great many capital crimes in Imperial Law, so the supply of potential troops for the Penal Legions is never-ending. The Legions are home to killers and psychopaths, to fraudsters and cheats, and to the insane and the fanatic. Pick-pockets and petty thieves rub shoulders with brutal murderers, cackling madmen, and religious zealots.
Into the Penal Legions pours the Human refuse of the galaxy. New troops have their heads shaved and tattooed with the unit insignia, and explosive slave-collars are put around their necks. The collars are a disciplinary device rather than a means of turning the troops into Human bombs -- the blast is directed inwards, and will have little effect on anyone standing a few Terran feet away.
The collars are controlled by the Adeptus Mechanicus personnel accompanying the force, and are detonated sparingly, when discipline needs to be enforced without destroying the troops' morale.
The Penal Legions provide a massive expendable source of manpower for the Imperial armies. Thrown into desperate battles to hold back surprise offensives, or cast against fortifications to test the enemy's strength, the Penal troops are disposable and they know it. Most die in their first battle, driven like cattle into the heart of the fighting.
The toughest, the most dangerous, the born killers, somehow survive. For every hundred pathetic miscreants that die whimpering under the enemy guns one mad killer emerges triumphant, screaming his insane anger. Penal Legions are a part of the regular fighting force of the Imperial Guard, and a commander who regards Penal Battalion troops merely as cannon-fodder and uses them wastefully is liable to end up in a Penal Legion battalion himself.
"There are those who undervalue the Penal Legions. But they should consider this: should a man who has wronged the Emperor be allowed to wrong him further? For each man executed is a man who can no longer serve, and to fail in service to the Emperor is the greatest of sins."
The Penal Legions are filled with scum of the worst kind. These murderers, rogues, deserters, cowards, madmen, seditionists, and drunkards fight for the Emperor in the bloodiest warzones -- whether willing or not. The penal units in which these villains serve are the product of the harsh discipline enforced in the Imperial Guard.
With millions of men and women under arms, all armed and trained to kill for the God-Emperor, there can be no leniency if order and combat effectiveness are to be maintained. The breaking of any number of tenets of military law and the inexhaustive wealth of Departmento Munitorum regulations up to and including murder are all punishable by death -- or service in a penal battalion.
The will of condemned criminals is not easily bound to the Emperor's service, and so many methods may be applied to get these forlorn wretches into battle. These methods may include the generous application of lashes by electro scourges, or fitting the penal legionnaires with auto-injectors to flood their bloodstreams with frenzon, slaught, or other combat drugs and turn them into raving berserkers.
Decimation of a Penal Legion that fails to advance is also a common motivational tool. In some cases legionnaires may be fitted with explosive collars which can be detonated remotely to reinforce an order or give instant punishment.
The Penal Legions are thrown into the most dangerous and suicidal of engagements where the chances of survival are minimal. Some go into battle filled with remorse for their crimes. Others walk like men already dead, their limbs trembling with fear. Some embrace the carnage and the prospect of their own death with madness born of fear.
Most die in the first moments of such engagements and pay a quick price for their crimes -- but a few may survive to be cast once again into the cauldron of blood and fire and see if the Emperor is yet done with their service.
These rare survivors are a savage breed who can walk into the mouth of hell and emerge screaming their defiance at death. In the end, however, death finds all, and even the most indomitable survivor will eventually find the only release from their crimes that there can ever be. A very few of these rare and dangerous survivors may find themselves performing new and more lethal service for an Inquisitor who has use for resourceful and hardened killers.
Becoming a Penal Legionnaire
"Non-sanctioned modification? No, sir, this is a, err, Wiskan-pattern MkIIIc, I have the Munitorum papers right here in my footlocker."
- — Guardsman Klein, prior to his reassignment to a Penal Legion
In the war-torn universe of the 41st Millennium, law and order is difficult to maintain. Across a million worlds it is barely held by the very fingers of those who uphold the Emperor's law.
The Adeptus Arbites are the pillars of justice across the galaxy and patrol the far-flung planets of the Imperium, where rebellion and defiance are crimes against humanity and the Arbitrators hunt down and capture rebels who would bring suffering and chaos to all Mankind.
The toughest criminals captured by the Arbitrators are inducted into the ranks of the Astra Militarum's Penal Legions. The Penal Legion is made up from the scum and undevout men of the galaxy -- mass murderers, rebellious Planetary Defence Force troopers, thieves, hijackers and all other manner of criminals are made part of the Penal Legion for their sins. These lawbreakers are saved from sentences such as termination or slavery and instead taken to battle against the Emperor's foes.
There are a few in the Emperor's own army, the Astra Militarum, who do not respect the Emperor, who are disloyal and rebellious. These soldiers are the criminals of war, troops who would sooner run in the face of an adversary than defeat it and those who would disobey their commanders to save themselves while leaving others to pay for their folly.
Becoming a Penal Legionnaire for a member of the Imperial Guard requires being condemned for a crime that is punishable by death and taking the choice to meet that death by serving in a Penal Legion. It means a decision to meet death at the hands of the enemies of Mankind rather than at the hands of the firing squad or the end of a Commissar's Bolt Pistol.
Sometimes a Penal Legionnaire is a rare individual plucked from the ranks of the condemned to serve the Inquisition.
Praecentors of Penance
"It is with your toil and your labour that ye shall be redeemed. Through bloodshed ye shall know absolution! The blood that shall be shed shall be both that of your enemies and your own."
- — Isaiah, Praecentor of the 289th Orcan Penal Legion
Priests of the Adeptus Ministorum serve many vital roles in the Spinward Front, and some might say the most important is shepherding the spiritual health of the men and women involved in that conflict.
There are many who crave spiritual leadership, who thrive only when shown the way through the example of the Imperial Creed -- and within the Spinward Front, the preachers that answer that call are sometimes named Praecentors of Penance.
Praecentors are not just leaders and spiritual guides; they are agitators, able to stir the hearts and minds of Imperial citizens and Guardsmen alike. The charismatic magnetism of these priests draws those burdened with guilt and unease like moths to a flame.
Praecentors in the Spinward Front often gather many troubled men and women to their side, including habitual troublemakers and shirkers from the ranks of the Imperial Guard. It should be of no surprise that the regiments that most frequently make use of Praecentors of Penance are the Penal Legions.
Amongst the prisoner-soldiers of the Penal Legions, a Praecentor of Penance offers the only salvation from an ignominious death by giving them the chance to redeem themselves through their actions. Of course, the one thing a Praecentor cannot offer them is redemption from their crimes. But while their lives are forfeit, their souls are not.
Condemned battle groups of colourful and desperate characters have been used to great effect on the Spinward Front of the Calixis Sector. Certain commanders find them valuable for fighting the Severan Dominate, who are more vulnerable to their terror tactics than the Orks or Drukhari. Others prefer to send them against the xenos, thinking it best to kill such beasts with monsters of their own.
One instance of a group of disgraced soldiers winning back their honour (if not their lives) involved a squad of Brontian Longknives condemned for suffering the disgrace of scars on their backs. As penance, the squad was sent across the ashwastes of Hervara to assassinate a Severan Dominate Ducal Legate -- a suicide mission.
Within solar hours, they fast-marched across the volcanic wastes, destroyed the legate's camp by diverting a lava flow, slaughtered their foes in an ambush, and returned to their regiment with the legate's head. All members of the squad perished in battle or from exposure after returning.
A monument made of hundreds of knives to the "Heartrippers" still stands in the Hervaran ash wastes south of Cobhan.
Penal Legion Forces
- Prefect Penatante - The Prefect Penatante are a feared sight in the Imperium, and rightly so, for they are famous for the harsh punishments they employ. They are domineering and cruel upon the fields of war and are valiant warriors in battle. They have no second thoughts about sending Penal Legionnaires into the centre of a Zone Mortalis and so are ideal to take command of such a dangerous force which needs great discipline to command. The Prefect Penatante's clothing echoes the flowing robes of a more ancient time and marks them out as the mighty lords of punishment that they are.
- Arbitrator Shock Squads - The Arbitrators form the policing units of the Legions Penatante. Without these Arbites the Penal Legions would soon lose control of their inmates through outbreaks of mutiny and rebellion. Arbitrators are well-armed and fanatically loyal to their cause. The Arbitrators of the shock squads wear dark uniforms and a sinister reflective visor of their helmet hides its wearer's penetrating gaze.
- Penal Squads - Each Penal Squad has a single Arbitrator commanding it. The Arbitrators of the Penal Legion wear white uniforms as a sign of purity so that they can be clearly distinguished from the prisoners in their care. The Legionnaires themselves are taken from military criminals, troopers who have run in the face of the enemy and dangerous criminals from the Segmentum Hive Worlds. They are all in the Penal Legions to repent for their crimes and are seeking the forgiveness of the Emperor. It is rare for a Penal Legionary to survive for long in the Penal Legions, but there are a few who do complete their sentences and are then free to return to their homes or back to their Imperial Guard regiments.
- Human Bombs - Amongst the Penal Legions there are those sinners who have sentences that can never truly be repented for in life itself. They are those who have raped, tortured and murdered people both physically and mentally through their own will and feel insanely repentant for what they have done. Many of these individuals cannot live with their crimes and feel blessed with the chance to be forgiven in their own deaths. Such men are dangerous in the regular ranks of the Legions Penetante and are immediately recruited into the Human Bomb squads. Preachers, Confessors and others of the Imperial Cult help those souls to understand what they must do to attain full forgiveness from the Emperor by means of mediation and prayer. Before battle Tech-priests adorn the Legionnaires with bomb harnesses and rip up the remotes, while Preachers and Confessors speak liturgies and blessings, for once the bomb is ignited, so is the prisoner forgiven and the sinner's soul is free to join the Emperor in solitude and peace.
- Cyborg Berserkers - Most who join the Penal Legions die in their first battle. They are pushed into the very heart of the fighting like cattle and no medical assistance is wasted on them afterwards. The toughest, the most dangerous, the born killers, somehow survive. The use of psychopaths on the battlefield has always been met with a feeling of apprehension. Most are generally safe enough to be put into Human Bomb sections or join the ranks of the Penal Squads, but some are so far gone that they could be a danger to friendly forces on the battlefield. These souls are taken away from the ranks of troopers, but because they are potentially so useful in their psychotic tendencies, they are bionically enhanced and made to be a lot more effective and a lot less dangerous for friendly units. These so-called Cyborg Berserkers are loners who fight with the savagery of five men and often charge directly into the centre of enemy ranks, and still live through the mad charge by virtue of their cyborg bodies.
Notable Penal Legions
- 13th Penal Legion ("Last Chancers") - The 13th Penal Legion, unusual among the many Penal Legions that serve in the Imperial Guard, was in fact a testing ground. The unit's commander, Colonel Schaeffer, would hand-pick his regiment's troops from Imperial prisons' worst convicts because of some natural talent they displayed or because they possessed an uncanny instinct for survival so that they could serve as part of an elite ad hoc military team intended to achieve some difficult, usually borderline-insane military mission objective of the Imperium. These dregs comprise the most vicious, ill-disciplined and unstable group of psychopaths, conspirators, thieves and traitors in the Astra Militarum who would otherwise be destined for the firing squad or the business end of a Commissar's Bolt Pistol. Many of those offered the chance to fight with the "Last Chancers" choose death rather than follow Colonel Schaeffer, for such is the colonel's reputation for undertaking suicide missions throughout the Imperium.
- 901st Penal Legion - Like other Penal Legions, the 901st is an Imperial Guard Penal Legion made up of criminals, condemned to serve until their inevitable death and ultimately earning redemption. They took part in the liberation of the Imperial world of Vanqualis from an invading Ork WAAAGH!. They were led by General Varr, who fought in an Imperial campaign in the Eye of Terror before being condemned to the 901st.
- Bar-El Penal Legions - The Bar-El Penal Legions are made up of criminals of the Bar-El and other star systems from the Agripinaa Sector, and fight under standard Imperial Guard methods, although with higher security. These units are often utilised as an expendable resource.
- Merov Penitentiary Indentured - The Hive World of Merov is home to an infamous unit of the Imperial Guard culled from Magistratum prisons and Adeptus Arbites Precinct wards across the Calixis Sector. This unit is commonly known as simply "The Merov Penal Legion," although there are rumors that its official designation is much more complex and exists only in some forgotten Administratum data-vault. Nevertheless, the Legion has a long history of celebrated victories, and enormous kill-banners flutter from every spire in Tsares Hive upon the anniversary of the Penal Legion's founding. The Merov Penal Legion is made up of desperate men, each a hardened criminal seeking redemption through service to the Emperor. The thirty Brother-Generals who command the Legion often engage in cruel games, pitting their units against each other in gladiatorial war-bouts described as "training missions" to the Munitorium. A rare few of the Brother-Generals act as more military commander than warden, training and disciplining their men like nearly any other unit of the Imperial Guard. However, for the majority of the Legionnaires, their existence is short, brutal, and unforgiving -- each day merely another chance to die in bloody combat. One tradition of the Merov Penal Legion offers hope to the thousands of troopers amongst its ranks. It is said that if the Legion is deployed in battle against the Emperor's foes and only one man survives, that man is set free, absolved of all his crimes. Regardless of the truth, stories about this tradition regularly circulate amongst the Legionnaires, fostering both a determination to survive no matter the odds, and a bloodthirsty, ruthless streak of pure aggression. Such men often volunteer for extremely hazardous missions, such as planting death-gas canisters or joining the battle-drugged demolition teams. Naturally, both of these tactics are commonly used by the Brother-Generals.
- Savlar Chem-Dogs - The Savlar Chem-Dogs are Penal Legion regiments that serve within the Imperial Guard. They draw their recruits from the prisons on the inhospitable penal world of Savlar by the promise that they will be allowed to keep anything they take from the battlefield, as well as the chance to get away from Savlar's highly toxic environment. Though these Guard regiments are primarily composed of immoral, desperate cut-throats, they have been forged into an effective fighting force, and are some of the most hard-bitten, tenacious and outright dirty fighters in the Imperium of Man.
The following is the standard issue kit for troopers of a Penal Legion:
- Lascarbine - A Lascarbine is the carbine form of the standard Imperial Lasgun with a compact upgrade, which makes it easier to carry and to aim than its larger counterpart. It will often possess a folding stock. However, as a result of these modifications, a Lascarbine has a shorter range and will fire fewer shots before depleting its power pack when compared to a standard Lasgun.
- 4 Charge Packs - Charge Packs are powerful capacitor batteries used almost exclusively by Imperial Laser Weapons. The Charge Pack's size and make varies depending on the class of the weapon. In all cases, it provides shots equal to the weapon's full magazine value and can be recharged when emptied.
- Explosive Collar - Sometimes used to ensure cooperation from the most unruly of Penal Legionnaires, an explosive collar leaves the Guardsman with little choice. Fitted around the Penal Legionnaire's neck, an explosive collar detonates when triggered remotely, or should it be tampered with. The small, directed charge is more than enough to remove the insubordinate's head, but inflicts only minor collateral damage. Only the Adeptus Mechanicus can disable the collars, but this can only happen after the convict has served his sentence.
- Frenzon Dispensers - Frenzon is a generic name for a number of combat drugs used to induce psychological effects in the recipient. In the Penal Legion, these drugs are usually injected via a dispenser device strapped to the throat as part of the explosive collar. Each collar contains 4 doses of Frenzon. A single dose of one of the specific types can be used to induce a frenzied psychological state. Once administered, the subject becomes fanatical and fearless. Only one psychological state can be induced at a time with frenzon. A single dose of frenzon antidote (also contained in the dispensing device) will negate the induced psychological state.
- 2 Mono Knives - The Mono-Knife is a one-handed melee implement that is one variant of the ubiquitous back-up melee weapon for warriors all across the Imperium, be they lowly hive scum or the elite soldiers of a Planetary Governor. Some, such as the Catachan Fighting Knife, are designed for a specific purpose, whilst others are more generic in nature.
- 3 Frag Grenades - Frag Grenades use a combustible charge and special fillers of shrapnel fragments which make them potent anti-personnel weapons. Imperial Frag Grenades are roughly the size of a clenched fist and covered with a heavily notched shell, both to increase the shrapnel produced and provide a more secure grip for throwing.
- 3 Krak Grenades - Krak Grenades are crafted with powerful concentrated explosives designed to punch holes in armoured targets such as vehicles or bunkers. While stronger than Frag Grenades, Krak detonations do not produce a blast effect and their more focused explosion makes them less practical as anti-personnel weapons.
- 1 Flak Vest and Flak Helmet - The most common type of armour in the galaxy is Flak Armour, as it is standard-issue to the countless millions of Imperial Guardsmen. Many layers of ablative and impact-absorbent material go into making each vest, enough to deflect or negate most low-level attacks such as small arms, shrapnel, and proximity blasts. Solid hits from high-impact weapons can generally negate it, but given that it is relatively lightweight, cheap to produce, and dependable in most combat situations, many veterans keep using Flak Armour even when offered better.
- Imperial Guard Penal Legion Prisoner Uniform
- 1 Inhaler - A standard inhaler is used to administer mood-modifying substances into the body.
- 1 Gas Mask - A simple breathing mask that covers the nose and mouth or entire face, these offer much better protection than filtration plugs in the face of toxins or chemical weapons.
- Poor Weather Gear
- Basic Tool Kit
- Mess Kit & Water Canteen
- 1 Weeks' Rations
- Blanket and Sleep Bag
- Rechargeable Lamp-Pack - Sturdy and reliable, glow-globes illuminate many an Imperial paveway and cathedral. Most portable ones are roughly the size of a clenched fist and can shine strong, yellowish light a dozen or so metres in width, lasting roughly five hours before their power pack needs recharging or replacing.
- Micro-Bead - A micro-bead or comm-bead is a short-range radio wave communication device worn in the ear, good for communications out to about one kilometre (depending on weather conditions and the intervening terrain). Each fits discreetly in the ear, with higher craftsmanship models being nearly undetectable in casual inspection.
- Ident Tags ("Dog Tags")
- Imperial Infantryman's Uplifting Primer - A standard-issue Imperial text that covers a vast variety of topics, this book is possessed by all members of the Astra Militarum as part of their standard-issue equipment. The Primer is a basic guide that details everything a Guardsman needs to know: principles and regulations of the Astra Militarum, issued arms, attire, apparatus and equipment, basic battlefield policy and Astra Militarum organisation and structure, elementary battlefield medical instructions, and a detailed guide on the foes of the Imperium. No Guardsman should ever be found without possession of a copy of the Uplifting Primer for the punishment is severe.
- Chapter Approved - Third Book of the Astronomican (2003), pp. 25-27
- Codex Imperialis (2nd Edition), pg. 30
- Codex: Imperial Guard (3rd Edition, 2nd Codex), pg. 60
- Citadel Journal 12, "Penal Legions," by Gavin Tyler, pp. 40-47
- Dark Heresy: The Radical's Handbook (RPG), pp. 56-57
- Deathwatch: Core Rulebook (RPG), pg. 339
- Imperial Armour Volume One - Imperial Guard and Imperial Navy, pg. 64
- Only War: Core Rulebook (RPG), pg. 61
- Only War: Hammer of the Emperor (RPG), pp. 22-23, 99, 122, 124
- Only War: Shield of Humanity (RPG), pg. 87
- The 13th Black Crusade (Sourcebook)
- Warhammer 40,000: Compendium (2nd Edition), "The Imperial Guard - Penal Battalions," pp. 148, 159
- Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader (1st Edition), pg. 166
- Last Chancers series (Novels) by Gav Thorpe
- Soul Drinkers: Chapter War (Novel) by Ben Counter
- Third War for Armageddon - Imperial Forces Disposition: Savlar Chem-Dogs