“Acht-acht”

One of the most well-known guns of WW2 was the 8.8 cm Flak 36 anti-aircraft gun, often referred to as the “Eighty-eight” or German “Acht-acht“. It had its origins in World War 1, but the versions that saw action during WW2 were developed in the 1920’s and 30’s. During the Spanish Civil War, it was discovered that the gun was very effective against vehicles, tanks and other ground targets.

It was mobile, but required an Sd.Kfz.7 half-track tractor to pull it. It could fire a 9.4 kilo grenade to an altitude of 9900 meters, posing a serious threat to Allied bombers. Used as an anti-tank gun, it could knock out most tanks at a range of up to 2 kilometers. The 8.8 cm gun was also the basis for the main gun of the Tiger tank, one of the most feared tanks of WW2.

In the photo, eight of the 11-man crew are visible. Flak batteries were operated by the Luftwaffe, and the stationary batteries defending German cities were often crewed by boys aged 15-16 years old. One of many ironies of the war was that many of the crews serving these powerful guns weren’t old enough to buy a beer.

Skulls

This studio portrait of two young soldiers, who I presume are friends, contains some interesting details, a couple of enigmas, and some historical background. My guess is that the photo was taken in 1941 or 1942. The Place is the small town of Dürnholz, since WW2 known as Drnholec in Moravia in the Czech Republic. The young men are most likely Sudeten Germans, the Volksdeutsche – ethnically German – population of western Czechoslovakia that the Nazi government in Germany used to further their territorial claims. When the war was over, Czechoslovakia was ethnically cleansed, the Sudeten Germans forced to flee to the zones under Western Allied administration.

The Soldat on the left is a Panzer crewman. He wears the black side-buttoned tunic typical of the Panzer crews. His collar tabs sport the silver skulls of the armored troops. Those had their roots in the skulls worn on the headdress of Napoleonic-era Prussian Hussars, symbolizing the do-or-die attitude of the daring cavalrymen. Many Panzer divisions were mechanized cavalry units, changing horses for tanks and armored cars. His shoulder straps are partially covered by slip-on fabric loops used to obscure the regimental number. This was done for operational secrecy, but there’s the possibility that his regiment is one of those that use differently-colored loops to differentiate between the battalions. His black sidecap indicates that the photo is taken after 1940.

His friend is a Waffen-SS Sturmmann (lance corporal) of some experience, implied by his Iron Cross, 2nd class, ribbon and the silver Wound Badge. He’s a member of a Waffen-SS division, but as his cuff title isn’t visible, it’s impossible to tell which one. One intriguing detail is the Edelweiss flower tucked in his cap. It’s a real flower, and not the embroidered patch of the SS-Gebirgsjäger mountain rangers. It obviously has some personal meaning, as it wasn’t an official feature of the uniform. The skull on his cap is the SS version, which symbolizes the willingness of the SS soldiers to die for the Reich.

It wasn’t uncommon for Panzer crewmen to be confused with SS troops because of the skulls and black uniforms. If they were taken prisoner, they ran the risk of being shot straightaway, as both western Allied and Soviet troops thought they were SS soldiers. One can but wonder about the final fates of the two young men in the photo.

For a more light-hearted take on the skull theme, the British comedians Mitchell and Webb made a pretty hilarious sketch on the subject some years ago.

 

Your tax money at work

Curious German civilians crowd around a Messerschmitt Bf 109, probably an E-1, patiently waiting in line to get a chance to take a look in the cockpit. It’s apparently a publicity stunt, showing the people that Germany possessed some of the finest fighter aircraft in the world. The all-metal construction, powerful engine, and, starting with the E-3, improved armament made it a respected adversary on all fronts.

The Bf 109 was the mainstay of the Luftwaffe, serving in different versions during the entire war. 33,984 were built between 1936 and 1945, making it the most numerous fighter aircraft in history. It was the mount of aces like Adolf Galland, Hans-Joachim Marseille, Gerhard Barkhorn, Günther Rall, and the ace of all aces: Erich Hartmann, who with his 352 aerial victories will probably never be bested.

Today, just a few original Bf 109’s are in flying condition. The roar of their Daimler-Benz engines can still be heard at some airshows, and I hope to see one in the air sometime before I die.

 

Same same but different

Two knocked out Schwerer Panzerspähwagen (heavy reconnaisance car) Sd.Kfz. 231 8-Rad (left) and 6-Rad (right), France, 18 June 1940. The one to the left is the eight-wheeled version, while the other is the six-wheeled. Judging by the damage, the right one has burned extensively, and is a total write-off. The other has lost its tires for some unclear reason, as there aren’t any definite signs of fire damage.

The Sd.Kfz. 231 family of armored cars were produced with different armament and radio equipment options. The six-wheelers were produced until 1937, when the eight-wheelers were introduced, featuring better crosscountry capabilities. With a top speed of 85 kph on roads, it was a capable vehicle for armored reconnaisance. The armament, usually a 20 mm automatic cannon, wasn’t intended for attack, but for returning fire if the vehicle ran into opposition. The point of reconnaisance is return with intelligence, and not engaging enemies if avoidable.

The 6-Rad saw little frontline action after 1941, while the 8-Rad was in use until the last days of the war in the form of the Sd.Kfz. 234.

Spoils of war

A big pile of captured French firearms and other equipment has been collected in the back of a truck. Jumbled together are Lebel and Berthier rifles, M1886 bayonets, ammunition pouches and an Adrian helmet. The German practice of using captured weapons, Beutewaffen, was extended to French weapons, too. Some of the rifles were issued to occupation troops in France, others to anti-partisan and security units in Eastern Europe. In a stroke of irony, some were even used in the defense of Berlin in 1945.

Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines

In the skies above Paris… Not really. An army Unteroffizier and his navy buddy have their photo taken in a studio in Paris, 1940. I have seen this very set used in at least one more photo, so I guess it was a rather popular souvenir back then.

Those were the happy days being a German soldier. Sure, at least 27,000 of them had been killed in the Battle of France, but the campaign was short and triumphant, and the humiliation of the defeat in 1918 paid back. The war against the Soviet Union was a year off in the future, and instead the German soldiers could enjoy occupation duty in France. There were plans and preparations for the invasion of Britain, Operation Seelöwe, but while the Luftwaffe fought in the skies over England, soldiers on leave had a fun time in Paris. A year and a half later, many of them would be freezing to death on the Eastern Front…

Junked Junkers

A crash-landed Junkers Ju 88, probably an A-4. The Ju 88 was a twin-engined multirole combat aircraft, which turned out to be one of the most versatile and successful airplane designs of WW2. This one didn’t enjoy much success, though, but at least the crew had a decent chance of walking away from the wreck.

The Ju 88 saw service in many different version, like a bomber, dive bomber, radar-equipped night fighter, torpedo bomber, reconnaissance aircraft, heavy fighter, and even flying bomb. In 1943, 105 Ju 88 A-4s were used in the attack on the port of Bari, one of the most succesful Luftwaffe attacks of the war, resulting in the sinking of 28 Allied ships. The Germans lost just one aircraft in the raid. One covered up effect of the attack was the release of mustard gas, which was carried on one of the sunk US ships, injuring hundreds of sailors, medical personnel and civilians, killing at least 83. One of the reasons the presence of chemical weapons was hushed down was that the Allies didn’t want the Germans to consider using gas on the battlefield. Hitler, who had been a victim of a gas attack during WW1, opposed its use (one of the few moral things he did), and if it had become known that the Allies had a ship full of artillery gas grenades, he might have reconsidered that decision.

Only two complete Ju 88s have survived the war. I’ve seen one of them, which is kept at the RAF Museum in Hendon, just north of London. The museum is a must to visit if one has an interest in combat aircraft of the 20th century.