“Now you see me, now you don’t”

German officers are sight-seeing along the Maginot Line, summer of 1940. The strange-looking fortification is a pop-up turret housing a 75 mm cannon. The idea was to provide as small a target as possible, raising the turret when the gun was ready to fire. It was part of the massive line of fortifications and bunkers along the Franco-German border, intimidating enough to deter any German frontal assault. It is said that generals fight the last war, but it is more a question of what conclusions they draw from it. The French didn’t want a repeat of the grueling trench war of 1914-18, so they aimed at stopping the Germans on the border by building static defenses. The Germans didn’t want a repeat either, but their solution was to become more mobile. With hindsight, it was obvious: if there’s an obstacle, you take an alternate route. The French military planners counted on Belgium and the hilly, heavily forested Ardennes to protect their northern flank, and that the large army would be mobilized in time and ready to fend off the smaller German army. Unfortunately for France, the Germans didn’t want to play by their rules…

We know the result. The Maginot Line was bypassed and only saw some action when the fate of France was already sealed. It was used by the Germans, and after WW2 some of the fortifications became command centers. It was finally abandoned in the mid-1960’s. By then, nuclear weapons had become the new deterrent.

Manoeuvre_tourelle

How the pop-up gun turret worked. Source: Wikipedia.

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Lost in the mists of time

A 21-cm-Mörser 18 fires a 113 kilogram grenade during the Battle of France, 1940. The back of the photo has a note saying “In Frankreich 1940 1./736“. This give a clue as to the identity of the artillery unit, which appears to be the first battery of the schwere Artillerie-Abteilung 736 (mot). The motorized heavy artillery battalion was an independent unit, as were the other 140 heavy artillery battalions in the German army. While “Mörser” translates as “mortar”, the gun is actually a howitzer; Mörser was the designation used by the Germans for howitzers of 20 cm caliber and greater.

The 736th is an obscure unit. It was raised on 10 December 1939, and originally equipped with captured Czech howitzers, but just a couple of days later it got the 21-cm-Mörser 18 instead. As evident, it took part in the Battle of France in 1940, then in 1941 it fought in the USSR as part of Army Group Center. It probably surrendered to the Red Army in 1945. That there’s little known about many units isn’t unusual. Records, war diaries and other documents were lost during or after the war. Some were destroyed before a unit surrendered, while those that fell in enemy hands could end up in some archive, were they became promptly forgotten. This poses a challenge to historians, to say the least.

In my search for information, I came across just one individual associated with the unit. A Hauptmann (Captain) Walter Wreth was awarded the German Cross in Gold, a medal ranking between the Iron Cross 1st class and the Knight’s Cross, on 14 July 1944. It’s possible that he’s identical to a Walter Wreth born in 1915, and who passed away in 1982 in Bremen. While three other soldiers with that name died during the war or in captivity just after the war, none of them were of the correct rank.

So, this is probably the only photo online featuring the schwere Artillerie-Abteilung 736. That says something about how frail the historical record can be.

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.

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.