Disaster has struck

Two train sets have smashed into each other, causing a massive derailment and an unknown number of deaths. On the ground close to the camera lie the bodies of killed soldiers, covered by Zeltbähne. Just to the left of the center of the photo is a dead mule or horse. The locomotives are still on the track, but the cab of left one is smashed by the tender. Railway cars have piled up and are torn asunder, spilling men, animals and matériel over the ground. Soldiers and railway personnel survey the devastation, which will take days to clear away. Telegrams will be sent to the families of those killed, while the people who escaped with injuries will spend the next weeks in hospitals.

There is no information when or where this accident occurred, or what caused it. Was it just an accident, human error like a mistake at a switch or a missed signal, setting the trains on a collision course, or was it sabotage while crossing occupied territory? As trains were the major means of transport, they were the targets of sabotage, partisan attacks, and airstrikes. Military trains had flatbed cars with antiaircraft guns, like the Flakvierling, and it wasn’t uncommon to have an empty goods or flatbed car in front of the locomotive, which would take the first hit if the rails were mined, saving the locomotive from the worst of the blast.

This photo is probably one of the few mementos of that railway disaster, apart for some yellowing clippings in some newspaper archive, a forgotten official report, and a few  letters stashed away with other memories of something that happened about 75 years ago. A tragedy lost in the greater tragedy that was the Second World War.

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Burial detail

The aftermath of battle… A group of German soldiers is about to take care of three dead French soldiers. The place is Boulogne-sur-Mer, a day or three after the Germans captured the Channel coast port town on 25 May, 1940. French and British units defended the town against attacks by the 2. Panzer-Division. The British managed to evacuate the majority of their troops, but a rearguard was left together with the French units, the survivors going into captivity for the next five years.

The delay caused by the fighting for Boulogne was a contributing factor to the success of the evacuation at Dunkerque. The few extra days meant that the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force got away. The dead French soldiers in that street corner never knew that their deaths were part of the price for the “Miracle of Dunkirk”.

Aftermath

The bodies of Soviet soldiers dot the battle-stained snow after a failed assault. One of the tires of a 3.7 cm Pak 36 (Panzerabwehrkanone 36) has caught fire, as the German position was almost overrun and the house on the right started burning. According to the notes on the back of the photo, more than 100 Red Army soldiers were killed. Attacking across an open field, especially when the opponent is armed with machineguns, is a surefire way of getting your soldiers slaughtered.

While we don’t know the specifics of this particular battle and the units involved, the Red Army was poorly led after the great purges of 1936-38, and another round of purges in 1941. Professional officers were executed, in the absolute majority of cases after summary court hearings based on false accusations. Instead, inexperienced but politically reliable officers filled the gaps. substandard leadership was one of the reasons why the Red Army fared so poorly against the Finns in the Winter War 1939-40. Ironically, the weak performance in Finland convinced Hitler that the USSR would be easy to defeat. When weather and the vastness of the Soviet Union slowed down the German advance, the Red Army could begin to slowly rebuild the competence lost.

Road to destruction

The charred corpse of a Soviet artilleryman lies next to the wreck of a ZIS-5 truck. In the background, a couple of German soldiers look at a 152 mm howitzer M1909/30. A column of Red Army howitzers has been attacked, perhaps by German aircraft, during the first stages of Operation Barbarossa, summer of 1941. In the first 5½ months of the war, the Soviets suffered a staggering loss of almost five million soldiers (killed, wounded, missing and captured). Meanwhile, the Germans suffered about a million casualties, and their allies a further 130,000. And that was just the beginning; there were three and a half years left until the Red Army captured Berlin.

Cannon fodder

The Eastern Front, the summer of 1941. A dead Soviet soldier lies next to the wreck of a truck with the company kitchen. The few branches serving as camouflage were ineffective in the open terrain when the Germans struck. The large pot will never hold soup again. If the company is still retreating, the soldiers will have to make do with whatever provisions they carry in their backpacks. Soon they’ll run out of food and become desperate, unless they make it back to their own lines.