“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.

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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.

A blast in the night

A 10,5-cm leichte Feldhaubitze 18 (10.5 cm light field howitzer) at maximum elevation fires off a round in the night. The gun was developed in 1928-29 by the arms manufacturer Rheinmetall, and adopted by the Wehrmacht in 1935. It could be towed by artillery tractors or horse teams. It could fire 6-8 shots a minute, the maximum range being a little over 10 kilometers. The Army had 4,862 leFH 18 when the war began. It was the standard divisional field howitzer. There were a total of 1,023 horse-drawn light field artillery battalions in the Wehrmacht and 62 motorized light artillery battalions in the Panzer and Panzergrenadier divisions, as well as GHQ artillery. The leFH 18 had a superior caliber compared to its opponents early in the war and performed well as the supporting arm of the panzer divisions.

While not ideally suited to it, the howitzer could in the right circumstances be effective in anti-tank combat, particularly in the North African Campaign where the motorized batteries of Artillerie-Regiment (mot.) 33 of the 15. Panzer-Division played an important role in defeating British armored units at Sidi Rezegh on 23 November 1941. On the Eastern Front, the light field howitzers were less successful in the anti-tank role, but served as a stop-gap solution until better anti-tank guns became available.

Wehrmacht European Tour 1940

“Saarbrücken”, “Boulogne”, “Calais”, “Langemark”, “Dünkirchen” (Dunkirk), “Ipern” (Ypres), “Zeeland”… The names painted on the 9.7 ton Sd.Kfz. 7 towing a 15-cm schwere Feldhaubitze sFH 18 tells of the campaign in the West. I haven’t been able to identify the artillery battalion or regiment the howitzer and its crew belonged to. Artillery units are usually only mentioned in passing, and remain largely anonymous despite their importance on the battlefield.

The 15 cm caliber heavy field howitzer could lob a 43.5 kilo grenade 13 kilometers, making it useful for softening up enemy positions prior to assaults. Soviet artillery could fire at greater ranges, which put the sFH 18 at a definite disadvantage in case of counter-battery fire. At 5.5 tons, an artillery tractor like the Sd.Kfz. 7 was useful in moving it, but it could also be pulled by a team of horses. The gun crew rode in relative comfort, the halftrack being spacious enough to hold their personal kit, as well as the ammunition for the howitzer. In case of rain or snow, a canvas roof could be erected.

The gun crew in the photo probably travelled eastwards in 1941, attached to or part of a motorized division. Did they end up in the Courland Pocket, in the destruction of Army Group Center, or were their unit wiped out in Stalingrad? It’s impossible to know, but one thing is pretty sure: that road trip in the summer of 1940 was probably a fond memory once the harshness of the Eastern Front became evident.

1 September, 1939

A German gun crew manning a 15-cm Kanone 18 outside Ostrowo, Poland. While it doesn’t say on the back of the photo that it’s 1 September, or indeed which of the dozen or so places named “Ostrowo”, I like to think that they have fired the first shots of World War 2. Well, the very first shots had been fired in Danzig (modern-day Gdansk), when the old battleship Schleswig-Holstein opened fire on the Polish military depot Westerplatte. The day before, SS and Sicherheitsdienst operatives had staged several false flag incidents, like the Gleiwitz Incident, in order to make it look like the Poles carried out attacks across the Polish-German border. One of the reasons why Hitler wanted to attack Poland was to reestablish the connection with the free city of Danzig, which had been cut off from the German Reich as a consequence of  the changed borders after WW1. To make matters worse for the Poles, Hitler had an agreement with USSR’s dictator Joseph Stalin, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which divided up eastern Europe in spheres of interest. A couple of weeks later, the Red Army invaded Poland from the east, which sealed the fate of the country.