Hunter in the snow

Almost knee-deep in snow, a German soldier patrols a birch forest somewhere in Russia. The ample winter clothing indicates the winter of 1942-43, when the Army had learned its lesson from the catastrophic winter of 1941-42. He carries a Selbstladegewehr 259(r) (“self-loading rifle 259 (Russian)”) and Zeiss 6×30 binoculars. Is he out for some sniping? Impossible to tell, as the sniper version of the rifle had the scope mounted far back, and in that case his body is obscuring it.

The rifle is the Soviet SVT-40, one of the first semi-automatic rifles in service in any army. Two models had superceded it, the AVS-36 and the SVT-38, but their construction left much to be desired. The SVT-40, which was intended to become the standard battle rifle of the Red Army, had its problems, too, but it was mainly the difficulty of manufacture that made the Red Army keep the bolt-action Mosin-Nagant 91/30 rifle, as the huge losses in 1941 necessiated replacement weapons that were easy to produce.

Poor fitting made the SVT-40 less accurate, and unless overhauled and modified, shots tended to be dispersed vertically. For a sniper rifle, this was something of a drawback, and production of the sniper variant of the SVT was terminated in 1942. Production of the SVT ceased in 1945, after 1.6 million SVT-38/40 rifles had been made.

The binoculars are made by the famous optics manufacturer, Carl Zeiss of Jena. The 6x magnification, 30 mm front lens Dienstglas was the standard binoculars of the German Army, being in production from 1910 to 1975. Probably the biggest improvement came in 1936, when a scientist at Zeiss invented an anti-reflective coating that reduced the loss of light to a minimum (uncoated lenses caused a 20-25 % loss of light in a pair of binoculars), which gave the Germans an advantage, especially in poor lighting.

The pristine winter camo consists of an overcoat, mittens, and a fur-lined hat with ear flaps. Underneath it, the soldier wears warm clothing and winter boots, a vast improvement from the previous winter.


About to head out

A group of lieutenants going through orders. Platoon commanders in what appears to be a mounted unit – reconaissance, most likely – (riding breeches, boots and spurs hint at that), there’s little that gives any hint about time or location, The lack of medals makes me think it’s during the initial phases of Operation Barbarossa, though. The second guy from the right carries a captured Soviet PPD-40 submachine gun.

The PPD (Pistolet-Pulemyot Degtyarova) was developed in 1934. It was adopted by the Red Army in 1935 and entered production as the PPD-34. Made in small numbers, it was mostly issued to the NKVD, foremost to border guards. Slightly modified in 1938, it was re-designed after the Winter War with Finland (1939-40), adopting a copy of the Finnish 70-round drum magazine (71 rounds in the Soviet version), thus becoming the PPD-40. After the German invasion in 1941, it was soon discovered that the PPD-40 was less than ideal for wartime production, so it was quickly replaced by the more inexpensive and easier to produce PPSh-41, the iconic SMG of the Red Army. The PPD-40 was a first generation submachine gun, and an indifferent weapon useful mainly for the large magazine capacity.

It was rather common among troops to use captured enemy weapons, as long as there was access to captured ammunition stocks. The officer to right in the photo carries the MP-40 (or MP-38) he was issued. One advantage of using a captured weapon is that it doesn’t give away the shooter as an enemy due to the sound, which might give an element of surprise. On the other hand, it might also confuse friendly troops…

“Would you like to come for a ride in my little tank?”

A German Kradmelder (motorcycle dispatch rider) sits on a captured French Renault UE chenillette (“small tracked vehicle”), a freshly painted German Balkenkreuz slapped on it to show who the new owners are. The chenillette was a light tracked armoured carrier and prime mover produced by France between 1932 and 1940. Its development was decided in 1930, as there was a need for a light armoured vehicle able to tow and supply light guns and mortars. In 1931 the Renault company was given the contract, and eventually over five thousand were built, becoming part of the standard equipment of all French infantry divisions. Most Renault UE vehicles in French service were unarmed, only the last version being armed with a machinegun, making it a “tankette”.

It was a very small vehicle, just 280 centimetres long, 174 cm wide and with its highest point at 125 cm. Its cargo carrying capacity was rather limited at about 350 kg. The Renault 85 38 horsepower engine provided it with a road speed of 30 kph. As it was such a low vehicle, the heads of the two-man crew were protected by two armored hoods. Those had vision slits, but the field of vision was rather limited. In the tradition of sometimes idiosyncratic French engineering, the two crewmen, separated by the engine between them, couldn’t communicate directly when the armored hoods were down. There was no internal radio set or even speaking tube fitted; instead, a system of white, blue, green and red lights was used by the commander to direct the driver.

The chenillette was mainly allocated to the regular infantry regiments. Their primary function was to provide frontline positions with ammunition and other necessities, especially if those were under artillery fire. The light armour was sufficient to stop shrapnel and rifle rounds. The Renault UE could carry or tow about 1000 kg of supplies – 350 kg in the cargo bin and 600 kg in a trailer. For longer distance moves, the chenillette would be normally loaded on a truck. Each infantry regiment had nine Renault UEs, and the divisional antitank company had three, making for a total of thirty vehicles in an infantry division.

The Germans had captured about 3000 chenillettes in the Battle of France. Most were employed unmodified as the Infanterie UE-Schlepper 630(f) for the 3.7 cm, 5 cm, 7.5 cm and 7.62 cm anti-tank guns, as well as a tractor for light and even heavier infantry guns. They were also used in their original role as munition carriers, and some were converted to self-propelled guns, with a German 3.7 cm Pak anti-tank gun fitted on top of it. A late modification from 1943 was the UE fitted with four Wurfrahmen 40 launchers for 28 or 32 cm rockets.

The little tractor saw some use in the post-war French army, but it was eventually replaced by more modern vehicles.

Dating tips for those too shy to ask

Many photos one can get hold on have no dates or other information that gives an idea about when or where they were taken. Most of the less expensive ones are from 1939 to 1941, mostly taken in France and the Soviet Union, or during training before or during the first years of the war. On auction sites like eBay, they are often sold in lots of half a dozen to several hundred. Most are depicting Heer (Army), but a sizeable part are Luftwaffe subjects and some Reichsarbeitsdienst thrown in. The really attractive photos, with tanks, airplanes, Fallschirmjäger, Waffen-SS, etc, are sold separately and at much higher prices.

Identifying and dating photos can make your collection more interesting and sometimes even more valuable, at least in your own eyes. The photo above isn’t that expensive. It’s 9×14 cms, and thus slightly larger than most photos from the period. It might be worth a couple of Euros or US dollars at most if bought separately. What it makes it interesting, though, is that it describes a step in the story of the Heer. It is most likely taken during exercises back in Germany. The soldiers don’t wear the Y-straps (combat suspenders) which were introduced in April 1939, but not in common use until late in 1940, after the campaign in the West. This narrows down the period of the photo, but not enough, and it could still be from, say, 1938 or 1941.

Another pointer is the decals on the helmets. The national tricolor decal was discontinued in early 1940. Still, with plenty of M1935 double-decal helmets around, the photo could be of a later date, but together with the lack of Y-straps, it makes it more likely that the photo was taken before 1941. Now, some of the soldiers carry an interesting piece of equipment that gives yet another clue. Three guys in the center-left part of the photo carry the long magazine pouches for the MG 26(t), which was the German designation for the Czech ZB vz. 26 light machinegun. 31,200 ZB vz. 26 MGs were captured when Nazi Germany occupied the Czech regions Bohemia and Moravia in March 1939. Now, this narrows down the window of the photo, setting the earliest date at the spring of 1939.

A look at the trees in the background shows them to be without leaves. This makes me think that the photo was taken in either the fall of 1939, or the spring of 1940 at the latest. It’s my guess that the soldiers in the photo belong to one of the nine infantry divisions raised in the fall of 1939, and which were issued some captured Czech equipment. That would fit in with the estimate above, and make it more likely that the photo was taken in March or April, 1940. Most of those divisions saw action in France in May and June that year. So there we have it: I’m fairly certain that it was taken during those two months.

To make an analysis and identification like this demands knowledge of uniforms, medals and insignia, weaponry, history, and so on. Good reference literature and reliable Internet sites are needed, and being a member of discussion groups and forums with knowledge of the subject at hand can be a great resource, too. It’s a learning process, so don’t expect to get everything right from the start, or that it’s even possible to get that much information from a photo. As long as you derive enjoyment from it, you are doing it right!

Bad-ass blunderbuss

Some photos can be puzzling. I looked at it and thought “What the hell is that?” Well, for starters, it isn’t a blunderbuss, but a Canon d’Infanterie de 37 modèle 1916 TRP. The flared muzzle is a flash suppressor on the rapid-firing 37 mm infantry support gun. Originally a French weapon, it was used by the US Army in World War 1 as well as some other nations, and saw use by both the French and the Germans during WW2. At a weight of 108 kilos, it wasn’t that mobile. It was crewed by two soldiers, gunner and loader. When loaded on a limber, it could be pulled by a horse. Anyway, one of the more obscure weapons, which was identified by the knowledgeable Mr Yan Taylor on Axis History Forum.

Spoils of war

A big pile of captured French firearms and other equipment has been collected in the back of a truck. Jumbled together are Lebel and Berthier rifles, M1886 bayonets, ammunition pouches and an Adrian helmet. The German practice of using captured weapons, Beutewaffen, was extended to French weapons, too. Some of the rifles were issued to occupation troops in France, others to anti-partisan and security units in Eastern Europe. In a stroke of irony, some were even used in the defense of Berlin in 1945.


A rather poor but interesting photo of some German infantrymen who have improved the firepower of their squad. Dragging three captured Maxim PM M1910 machineguns past a knocked-out Soviet tank, it’s a question for how long they’ll want to schlep the 64-kilo weapons. The wheeled carriage helps, but it seems to be a hot day, as most of the soldiers wear the off-white Drillich linen work pants instead of the fieldgrey woolen pants. Still, the MGs will come in handy if they run into some Red Army opposition. As long as they have ammo, their squad will be fine. Their rifles appear to be longer than the standard Karabiner 98 kurz; it’s as if they are armed with the older Gewehr 98. This was used by second-line units until issued Kar98k.

ETA: My friend Daniel Löwenhamn pointed out that the tunics are the olive green Drillich tunics used for the work uniform. Later, the work uniform was changed to a reed green color and used as a summer uniform.