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.

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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.

A ditched gun and a puzzle

Near the Desna River in eastern Ukraine, July 1941, a couple of soldiers belonging to Army Group Center take a look at a ditched Soviet 152 mm howitzer-gun M1937 (ML-20). The ML-20 was one of the most successful Soviet artillery pieces of WW2. Its characteristics positioned it between classical short-range howitzers and special long-range guns. Like so many other Red Army guns left behind, this one will probably be pressed into German service, designated as 15,2-cm Kanonenhaubitze 433/1(r).

The photo is interesting as it makes me wonder who the guy who took it was. On the back of it is pencilled: “Ecce quam bonum et quam jucundum habitare fratres in unum” (“Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity”), a line from psalm 133. The combination of education and irony appeals to me. Did his erudition and wit see him through the war, or did he end up beneath a birch cross somewhere in the depths of Russia? If so, which psalm was sung over him in the church back in his home town? Or did he return after the war to pick up his civilian career? So many questions, so few answers…

“Acht-acht”, part 2

This very nice photo of an “88” is in an album I own, once put together by a member of an as of yet unidentified Luftwaffe anti-aircraft unit. The gun crew is showing their piece to a gaggle of officers and functionaries. The man on the right, wearing a swastika armband and an NSDAP badge, is probably a member of some Nazi Party organization. At first, I thought he was in the Reichsluftschutzbund (National Air Raid Protection League), but the uniform doesn’t look right for that. One of the little mysteries of the uniform-obsessed Reich

Other photos in the album show the unit advancing through the Soviet Union as part of Army Group South, possibly in the 1. Panzerarmee. A postcard shows that the unit reached Kislovodsk, deep in the Caucasus, in late 1942. I guess the anonymous Luftwaffe soldier made it out alive when the Red Army launched a counteroffensive in 1943, but his final fate remains unknown.

“Acht-acht”, part 1

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.

Mystery uniform

Young artillerymen training with a 7,5 cm leichtes Infanteriegeschütz 18 (7,5 cm le.IG 18), autumn of 1936. This light artillery piece was introduced in 1932, intended to provide artillery support on regimental level. It was crewed by five, and could fire a 6 kg grenade up to 3.5 kilometers.

The uniforms of the gun crew are a bit of an enigma. They look like police uniforms, with their dark, two-button cuffs and many front buttons. The boots seems to be police issue, too. The Army-style national eagle over the breast pocket wasn’t a feature on police uniforms, even if there were exceptions. The M1918 Stahlhelm doesn’t add to the mystery, though, as the newly introduced M35 helmet hadn’t been produced in sufficient numbers by then.

This is one of those photos that raises more questions than it answers. Were they issued police uniforms because of shortages due to the rapid expansion of the Wehrmacht that began in 1935? This is what makes researching even a rather trivial photo an interesting challenge.

Edited to add: The boots are probably the three-buckle Army boots used before the traditional jackboot was reintroduced again. The buckled boots had lacing, but there were issues with them leaking, so the older style was preferred.