Karl, where is my dud?

The Volkhov Front, east of Leningrad, autumn of 1941. An Oberfeldwebel stands next to a 21 cm shell fired by a Soviet Br-17 heavy siege gun. Luckily for him and his unit, the high explosive shell, loaded with some 20 kilos of TNT, was a dud. Even if it hadn’t exploded, it was still dangerous, and had to be removed carefully, or destroyed through a controlled explosion. A task for people with strong nerves…

In 1989, my rifle company participated in a refresher manoeuver together with the rest of the brigade. A couple of days were spent on a artillery firing range. As we made our way through the broken terrain, we saw several unexploded 155 mm artillery shells. After spotting the first one, we took great care where we placed our feet… Nothing like some duds of unknown volatility to sharpen your senses. There were no mishaps, but the exercise was eventful in other aspects.

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Chariot of feuer

This photo most likely depicts a parade in France, 1940, possibly in Paris after the surrender of the French army. An Sd.Kfz. 251/4 pulling a field gun rumbles past a Panzer crewman holding a banner of some sort. His padded beret helps date the photo, as it was officially withdrawn from use in January 1941.

The distinctive Sd.Kfz. 251 was the main armored halftrack used by the Heer. It was mainly used by Panzergrenadier troops, but also as a support vehicle with a range of heavier weapons. With 15,252 vehicles made (all versions), there were never enough to go around, which made the Germans use the halftracks for one Panzergrenadier regiment in a Panzer division, the other riding on trucks instead.

It held a squad of soldiers (10 soldiers), a driver and a commander. It was capable of a road speed of 53 km/h (33 mph). It had very good cross-country capability, but the interleaved wheels were susceptible to getting clogged by heavy mud and icy snow.

There are several Sd.Kfz. 251s in running condition, but in war movies, the Czech-built copy OT-810 is commonly used. It has a roof over the crew compartment, so it has to be modified in order to look like the original. The Germans used the American M3 halftrack if they captured one, so if you see one in a movie, it hasn’t to be a goof. The US vehicle had better performance, but without the Sd.Kfz. 251, the Germans would’ve had a harder time with their Blitzkrieg.

Bottom of the barrel

A 10,5 cm schwere Kanone 18 has suffered an internal explosion, completely destroying the field gun. “But isn’t a gun supposed to be able to take an explosion? After all, the charge firing the grenade is pretty strong”, people might object. Yes, but there can be several reasons for a barrel getting destroyed like that. One is intentional destruction, “spiking the gun” in order to deny it to the enemy in case you have to abandon your position, but haven’t got the time or means to take the gun with you. There were even special charges for that (Sprengpatrone Z), made for different calibers. Another reason could be a worn barrel, but there were shot counters that were used to keep track on how many rounds had been fired so the barrel could be replaced in time. Still, a production flaw, like a miniscule crack or small impurity, could lead to a catastrophic failure. A third reason could be the grenade going off or getting stuck right after the charge has been ignited. While the gun breech can take the force of a blast, the barrel itself isn’t thick enough to withstand the force of an explosion. It could be really messy for the gun crew; if they were lucky, they got away with just the shock, but the blast and shrapnel could just as well maim or kill them. There’s no hint of the fate of the crew manning the gun in the photo. For their sake, I hope they survived to tell the tale in their letters home.

“Verdammt! Was nun?”

A narrow dirt road, a soft road shoulder, a 10,5-cm leichte Feldhaubitze 18 weighing some two tons ends up in the ditch. No way the 17 soldiers will get the howitzer back on its wheels and hitched to the limber again. They’ll have to wait for a half-tracked tractor to pull it right. The body language of the artillerymen tells that they realise that there isn’t much they can do. Or is it? We will never know how they got the gun back on the road. One or two of the men in the photo might still be alive. They’ve seen things ordinary people wouldn’t believe. Tanks on fire in the fields near Kursk. They’ve watched tracers glitter in the dark in the Korsun Pocket. All those moments will be lost in time, like snow in the spring. Too few are still alive.

Howitzer on ice

A serene scene, a column of 9.7 ton Sd.Kfz. 7 artillery tractors towing 15-cm schwere Feldhaubitze sFH 18 howitzers through a fir forest, the boughs laden with snow. One can almost hear the idling engines, muffled by the trees. But there’s a hidden danger… The sign warns of Glatteis – black ice – which the tracked vehicles don’t have any greater problem negotiating, but which the towed guns might have. Without snow chains, the hard rubber tires might skid if there’s a sharp turn, and 5.3 tons of hardware could end up in a ditch… What would that look like? See tomorrow’s post.

No lack of targets

The crew of a 10,5-cm leichte Feldhaubitze 18 (10.5 cm light field howitzer), Eastern Front, probably late winter, 1942. As I wrote in a previous post, the gun was primarily a howitzer, but it was also used as a stop-gap solution to the lack of anti-tank guns powerful enough to take on Soviet armor. The 7.5 cm PaK 40 AT gun was introduced later in 1942, and until then, the leFH 18 filled the role as best as it could.

On this day in 1941, the temperature on the Moscow front fell to −37° C (−31° F), further inhibiting the German advance. Weapons and vehicles didn’t work, supplies couldn’t be brought forward, and soldiers froze to death in their summer uniforms. In their arrogance, the planners of Operation Barbarossa thought that the campaign would be over before the advent of winter. They had underestimated the number of Red Army divisions, were unaware of the new, superior Soviet tanks, and calculated that the supply situation would be solved through living off the land. The latter meant that there were no food set aside for prisoners of war, and that soldiers had to plunder food from Soviet peasants, resulting in the starvation and death of hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens. When the gamble didn’t pay off, the Germans were stuck with a war they couldn’t win.

Artillery in high places

A group of Gebirgsjäger looking at a 7,5-cm-Gebirgsgeschütz 36 L/19,3. The elite mountain rangers were rated as light infantry, as they couldn’t bring heavy vehicles or weapons with them in the mountains. What couldn’t be carried by the men had to be carried by mules, and that meant that heavier weapons must be able to be broken down in smaller loads. The 7.5-cm mountain gun 36 L/19.3 was developed between 1935 and 1938 by the arms manufacturer Rheinmetall, and introduced in 1940/41. It was a welcome addition to the arsenal of the Gebirgsjäger units, as it provided firepower in places where every advantage was needed and regular artillery couldn’t reach.

The 7,5-cm-Gebirgsgeschütz 36 soon became the standard weapon of the mountain artillery due to its good ballistic properties in both low and high trajectories, and was used by light mountain batteries until the end of the war. The 750 kg gun could be pulled by a couple of mules, or broken up in eight loads weighing 80-116 kilograms to be carried by mules with special pack saddles. It was served by a crew of five, and could fire six to eight 6 kg shells a minute up to 9.250 meters. The guns were used in batteries of four guns each.