Across the Dnieper

The summer of 1941, the Soviet Union. An SdKfz 10 towing a PaK 36 anti-tank gun crosses the wide Dnieper river on a pontoon bridge built by an engineer unit. The registration plate on the halftrack marks the vehicle as belonging to the Waffen-SS, which, because of the location, would make it belong to either SS-Division (mot) “Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler” (LAH) or SS-Division “Wiking”. The former was Hitler’s “life guard” unit, first among equals, while the latter was made up from “Germanic” volunteers from the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Denmark and other countries occupied by Nazi Germany.

Six Waffen-SS divisions participated in Operation Barbarossa: LAH, Das Reich, Totenkopf, Polizei, Wiking, and Nord. As the war progressed, a further 32 divisions were established, but many were understrength and/or of questionable quality. Several were used for anti-partisan warfare, where they committed war crimes. Even the “elite” formations were involved in war crimes, with the possible exception for Nord. Some of the “ethnic” double-digit divisions acquitted themselves well, but in general they were far from the elite formations some think was the norm for the entire Waffen-SS. They were part of the Nazi idea of a pan-European army fighting against Communism, but the vision of an Aryan elite clashed with reality. Some of the units, most notably Dirlewanger and the Kaminski Brigade, were little more than armed rabble and criminals.

Still, when the best divisions were in the frontline, there were few other formations that could rival them. The fighting spirit displayed made them feared and respected adversaries, but the taint of their war crimes and involvement in crimes against humanity tarnishes their memory.


Please recycle

An Unteroffizier watching a train shipping airplane wreckage to the smelters as his train passes by. The star on the wing next to his head has a star, indicating that the scrap metal is the remains of destroyed Soviet airplanes. Germany was in constant need of metal for its arms production, and the many thousands of Red Army Air Force planes that had been wrecked on the ground or shot down were a valuable source of steel, aluminium and other metals. Perhaps the metal from SB 2M wreck in the previous post was recycled and used for German airplanes.

The battlefields across the globe were littered with wrecked tanks, trucks, airplanes and other war materiel, the cleanup after the war taking many years. Most were recovered as scrap metal and melted, but now, over 70 years later, wrecks of tanks and planes are recovered from bogs, lakes, seas and rivers, and carefully restored back to their original state, to be displayed in museums or even put back in running or flying condition. Right after the war, few thought of preserving those war machines, and in some cases there’s only a single plane or tank preserved of a production run in the thousands.

The Jagdpanther in the clip below was restored from two shot-up wrecks recovered from firing grounds, additional parts sourced from over a dozen collectors around the world. It is one of three Jagdpanthers in running condition, with a further seven kept in museums, out of a total production run of 415 tanks.


Gone to ground

A German cavalry unit has come across the wreck of a Soviet Tupolev SB 2M light bomber, its landing gear and engines ripped off in the crash landing. The location is somewhere in the Soviet Union, most likely during the first weeks of Operation Barbarossa. The Red Army Air Force suffered heavy losses, and it took the Soviets a couple of years before they had wrested air superiority from the Germans.

The Tupolev ANT-40, also known by its service name Tupolev SB (Russian: Skorostnoi Bombardirovschik – high speed bomber), was a twin-engined three-seat light bomber, first flown in 1934. More than 6,600 were built in different versions between 1936 and 1941. The rapid development of fighter planes made the design, which was considered successful in the mid-30s, in need of replacement by the early 1940’s. Still, 94 % of the Soviet bomber force was made up from SB 2Ms by the time of the German invasion in June, 1941, some 1,500-2,000 deployed near the border, where they fell victim to German attacks on airfields. Those that survived the initial onslaught were poorly used, and within a few days, losses forced most of the remaining SBs to switch to night attacks.

SBs continued to be used, in the defense of Leningrad and Moscow, mainly at night by attacking German artillery. By December 1941 almost all of the SBs had either been replaced by more modern bombers like Pe-2s or lost, although it remained in large-scale use until March 1942 in the North against Finland. The Finns used captured SBs against their previous owners. SBs continued in use for non-combat roles such as supply dropping, glider towing and training, and continued in use in the Far East until 1945.

In port

Fischerischutzboot Weser, or her sister ship Elbe, in port 1933-35. The two ships were built in Wilhelmshafen in 1931, and served as support vessels for German fishing boats on the North Sea. They were based at Marinestation der Nordsee in Wilhelmshafen. The ships were armed with a 8.8 cm deck gun and machinegun. In 1939, both ships were rebuilt and had their sterns extended in order to improve their seaworthiness. They were transferred to the Kriegsmarine (Navy), and fitted with 2 cm AA guns and depth charge racks. The Weser and Elbe now served as minesweeper escorts. Weser ended up in the 7. Minesweeping Flotilla in northern Norway, and fell into British hands at the end of the war. She was used for post-war minesweeping, and was scrapped in 1954. The Elbe served in the Baltic Sea before going to the 5. Minesweeping Flotilla in northern Norway. Like her sister, she was captured by the British in 1945, but was handed over to the Soviets in December, 1945, and renamed Terek. She was scrapped in 1962.


Thanks to member Polar bear on Axis History Forum for help with identifying the ship.

Shaving cream, be nice and clean

How to make sure that your men always look keen: do the shaving. A Wachtmeister (artillery staff sergeant) gets a close shave by his Leutnant (2nd lieutenant). They serve in Artillerie-Regiment 72, and as the photo was developed in Wiesbaden, I believe it is from 1936 or 1937, between when the regiment’s 1st battalion was formed and its move to Mainz. It was reassigned to the 36. Infanterie-Division, and became the 3rd battalion of Artillerie-Regiment 36. It saw action in France in 1940. The division was motorized in late 1940. It participated in Operation Barbarossa, mostly in Army Group Center, and spent the rest of the war on the Eastern Front. The battalion was destroyed together with large parts of the regiment and the division in June, 1944. The men in the photo were lucky if they became prisoners of war, provided they had survived that long.

Three friends of mine

Berck-sur-Mer, France, summer of 1940. Three combat engineers from the 10. Panzer-Division take a look at a defused British Mk XIV (or possibly the upgrade, Mk XVII) naval mine, the contact horns removed and the 145 kg TNT charge lying next to it.

Mine warfare was very much a thing during WW2, all nations with coasts using naval mines both to protect their territory, to disrupt enemy shipping (as part of a blockade), and to sink enemy warships and merchant ships. There were several types of mines, the most common being the contact mine like the one above. That type was moored and submerged just under the surface, a mechanism adjusting the length of the mooring wire as the tide rose and fell. The mine had a number of horns, and when one of those was struck by a ship, the main charge exploded, the resulting damage crippling or sinking the ship. Other types of mines reacted to the magnetic field of a ship, or the sound of its propellers. Naval mines were the cause of loss of ships and lives long after the war, as unswept mines continued to be a danger to shipping.

Berck-sur-Mer was a small fishing town in the Pas-de-Calais region which had become a resort in the mid-19th century, when a hosptial for the treatment of tuberculosis was built there, the sea air thought to be beneficial for the patients. The town was damaged in 1944, as Allied air raids in preparation of D-Day hit German coastal installations, mainly as a diversion in order to draw German attention from the landing beaches in Normandy. The town recovered, and is now a holiday resort.

Tiny tanks

Three Panzerkampfwagen Is during a parade sometime between 1935 (when the tank was made public) and 1940 (after which the Panzer berets were officially abolished). In the foreground, policemen wearing flat-topped shako helmets can be seen.

The PzKpfw I was developed in secret in defiance of the Versailles Treaty, which prohibited Germany to have any tanks. With a crew of two (commander and driver), and armed with two 7.92 mm MG13 machineguns, it was a light tank intended primarily to train tank crews, but also to support infantry. The thin armor (maximum 13 mm) and light armament made it unsuitable for combat against other tanks. It first saw combat during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), where it proved to be inferior to the Republican army’s Soviet T-26 light tanks.

It saw more action in Poland 1939, in the attack on Denmark and Norway in 1940, and during the Campaign in the West later in the spring of 1940, where a fifth of the German tanks were PzKpfw Is. The light tanks didn’t measure up to opposition like the French Char 1 bis and Somua tanks; it was only the fact that all German tanks had radios, generally higher speed, and deployed according to a superior doctrine that made them successful. As the war wore on, the PzKpfw I was withdrawn from frontline use. It was used in other roles, as a light command tank, tractor, or converted with the chassis as the basis for AT guns, and did so until the end of the war.