On a rail

Somewhere on the Eastern Front, perhaps near Smolensk, September 1941. A flatbed railway car announces that it’s only 300 kilometers left to Moscow. The German army has covered two thirds of the distance between the 22 June front line and Moscow in less than 2½ months. The remaining distance would take four months against mud, snow, Arctic cold and stiffening Soviet resistance. The supply lines got increasingly longer, vehicles suffered mechanical breakdowns, the frontline units had lost soldiers, NCOs and officers. While the German divisions got increasingly weaker, the Red Army could replace the terrible losses suffered with a seemingly unending supply of fresh divisions. The Germans called it Totsiegen – to win the battles but dying while doing so, or a form of Pyrrhic victories. On 2 December a reconnaissance battalion reached the town of Khimki, some 18 km away from the Kremlin in central Moscow. This marked the farthest advance of German forces on Moscow. That railway car was off by only 6 %, but in military campaigns there’s no second prize…

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Fieldworks, part 1

This was probably the most pedantically dug trench on any front during World War 2. Trenches weren’t just a thing during WW1, but saw extensive use 1939-45, too. If a military unit had to spend a longer period of time outside of built-up areas, it dug in. Foxholes, gun positions, bunkers and connecting trenches were protected by barbed wire and minefields. A dug-in unit had a better chance of surving artillery barrages, infantry and armored attacks, etc. The Germans often had two trench lines, using the rear one while the forward one was under artillery fire, manning the forward trench when the barrage lifted and the enemy infantry was about to launch an assault.

One of the reasons trenches were dug in a zig-zag pattern was that any blast from an artillery grenade, mortar round, or hand grenade hitting the trench wouldn’t travel along the trench, as the corners would dissipate the force of it. The trench in the photo was probably camouflaged once it was finished. With bunkers and protected machinegun positions, it would provide a safe environment for the defenders.

The conquering enemy

A street in ruins, possibly in Warsaw, German soldiers with time off looking at the devastated city. The poster on the left says “Do broni – Zwarci i zjednoczeni zwycięƶymy wroga!” (“To arms – Strong and united we’ll vanquish the enemy!”) Unfortunately, as bad as the war had started, even worse was to come. The Jewish population was herded into a ghetto, where the unbearable conditions eventually resulted in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, triggered by the order to annihilate the ghetto as part of Hitler’s “Final Solution”. On 19 April 1943, Jewish fighters launched the uprising. Despite being heavily outgunned and outnumbered, the Ghetto held out for almost a month. When the fighting ended, almost all survivors were massacred, with only a few managing to escape or hide.

A year later, as the Red Army was deep into Polish territory and pursuing the Germans toward Warsaw. The underground Home Army (AK) tried to seize control of Warsaw before the Red Army arrived. On 1 August 1944, as the Red Army was nearing the city, the Warsaw Uprising began. The armed struggle went on for 63 days. Eventually the Home Army fighters were forced to capitulate. They were transported to PoW camps in Germany, while the entire civilian population was expelled. Hitler, ignoring the agreed terms of the capitulation, ordered the entire city to be razed to the ground. About 85% of the city was destroyed, including the historic Old Town and the Royal Castle.

The city was rebuilt after the war, the Old Town reconstructed, and today Warsaw stands as one of the great capitals of Europe.

 

Thanks to Artur Szulc for the translation of the poster.

Katzensamstag

Not much in the way of a Caturday picture, but I guess it counts. The tall Luftwaffe soldier appears to be the father of the little boy. Did the boy get the pull along cat as a present when his father came visiting? Too small for Elastolin toy soldiers or wind up toy tanks, the boy has taken his beloved toy cat for a walk together with Daddy and his soldier friends. If he’s lucky, his dad will return from the war. He’ll grow up during the uneasy peace known as the Cold War, and who knows – he might still be alive, 80 years old or more.

Norway, May 1945

German soldiers are literally laying down their arms somewhere in Norway on 9 May 1945, as Germany surrendered to the Allies. After five years, the occupation was finally over. By the end of the war, there were 400,000 German troops in Norway, which had a population of barely three million. The threat of an invasion and the potenial loss of important ports like Narvik, Trondheim and Bergen made the Germans keep a large force in Norway, troops which were needed on other fronts.

The surrender was largely uneventful, the majority of those involved relieved that the war was over. The conditions included that the German High Command agreed to arrest and intern all German and Norwegian Nazi party members listed by the Allies, disarm and intern all SS troops, and send all German forces to designated areas. Among those arrested was the Norwegian Nazi leader and collaborator, Vidkun Quisling.

The underground resistance movement known as Milorg, numbering more than 40,000 armed Norwegians, took command, joined later by detachments of regular Norwegian and Allied troops which were sent to Norway, including 13,000 Norwegian troops trained in Sweden and 30,000 British and American troops. Finally, on 7 June, King Haakon VII arrived in Oslo after his exile in London.

Norway, May 1940

German reinforcements arrive by ship to Norway, May 1940. The invasion the previous month had taken the Norwegians by surprise, but the mountainous terrain and the presence of British and French forces made the campaign hard-fought. Operation Weserübung was the German move to secure the port of Narvik in northern Norway, and thus the supplies of much-needed iron ore from the northern Swedish mines. Using Denmark as a springboard, the Germans launched a combined assault by air and sea, the first such operation in history.

The actions leading up to the invasion was like a game of chess, where the players couldn’t see the pieces of their opponent. Since the invasion of Poland, Britain and France had engaged Germany in limited operations. The Germans needed the iron ore from Sweden, which couldn’t be transported while the Baltic Sea was frozen over, as well as securing the passage to the Atlantic Ocean. The British wanted to deny the Germans the ore, and had plans to get neutral Norway to side with Britain and France. There was also a plan to send military help to Finland in the fight against the Soviet Union, using Narvik as the landing port and occupying the Swedish iron mines in the process. Two invading forces were heading towards Norway in early April…

The Allied force was delayed by rough weather, and Germans beat the Allies to it. Norway surrendered after two months of hard fighting, while the Allies evacuated as Germany had launched the attack on France, the Netherlands and Belgium.

I once talked to a man who had been an officer at a regiment outside Gothenburg, Sweden. He was about to train some soldiers on 9 April, when he was summoned to his commanding officer. “The Germans have attacked Denmark and Norway. Take a truck and buy every spade, saw, axe, and iron spit you can lay your hands on.” The Swedish Army was in such a bad state after years of cutbacks, that the gear needed in the field had been passed over in favor of ammunition, as funds were very limited. The Army, just about to demobilize after the raised state of preparedness following the German-Soviet attack on Poland and the Soviet attack on Finland, moved infantry units to the Swedish-Norwegian border. Lacking sufficient numbers of tanks, combat aircraft, and artillery, as well as training, Sweden was in no state to assist Norway.

Big game hunters

German troops trudging through driving snow, protected by Zeltbahn shelter halves worn as ponchos. The soldier in the middle is carrying a Panzerbüchse 39 (PzB 39), an anti-tank rifle used to knock out armored vehicles. Several countries used AT rifles, but as their principal targets became increasingly heavier armored, they were of limited use. The concept of AT rifles originated during World War 1, and as long as tanks and other armored vehicles sported thin armor, the idea was valid. A 1939 German rifle company was equipped with three PzB 39, at least in theory; shortages in production meant that only 568 PzB 39 were used by the German army in the invasion of Poland.

Two years later, at the beginning of the war against the USSR, 25,298 PzB 39 were in use by German troops. They could take on light tanks like T-26s and BT-7s, but KV-85s and T-34s (which the Germans didn’t know existed) were tougher nuts to crack… Total production from March 1940 to the cessation of production in November 1941 was 39,232 rifles.

The overall length was 162 cm, and the weight was 12.6 kg. It fired a 7.92 mm armor-piercing round. 25mm armor penetration was effective out to 300 meters. To increase the practical rate of fire, two cases containing 10 rounds each could be attached to the sides of the weapon, closer to hand for the gunner. A fold-out bipod steadied the weapon. The PzB 39 remained in use until 1944, by which time it had become hopelessly inadequate against all but the lightest armored vehicles.