A donkey and an ass

The donkey is to the left. It’s April 1941 in Greece, and a German soldier tries to make a stubborn donkey to stand up by pulling its ears. The campaign in Greece was short, but the occupation was troublesome, with partisans and resistance fighters making life difficult for the Germans. Still, holding Greece was necessary in order to keep the British from having a foothold in the northern Mediterranean. With its many islands and mountainous terrain, Greece was a challenge, and local German garrisons found themselves cut off by the end of the war. Germany occupied Greece together with Italy and Bulgaria, and like in other parts of the Balkans, the civilian population suffered severely at the hands of the occupying forces. When the war was over, the problems for Greece didn’t end there. A civil war between communist and anti-communist factions resulted in further deaths and devastation, and wasn’t over until 1949. It was one of the first conflicts of the Cold War, and set the tone for the coming 45-50 years.

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A chip off the old Bloch

“Wir fliegen gegen Engelland mit einem abgeschossenen Franzose.” “We fly to England with a downed Frenchie.” German soldiers have fun with a grounded Bloch MB.210 bomber, summer of 1940. The prototype of the boxy and unappealing MB.210 first flew in 1934, and the first production aircraft in 1936. It was underpowered, the engines prone to overheating, and had to have the engines exchanged. Less than 300 were built, ten of them sold to Romania. When the Germans invaded France in 1940, the twelve bomber squadrons equipped with the MB.210 were in the middle of reorganization, where outdated aircraft were to be retired. The slow aircraft saw some action, primarily as a night bomber, but by the armistice there were only 119 flyable aircraft left. The Romanian air force used it on the Eastern Front, but appears to have retired the surviving aircraft in 1942. The Bloch MB.210 is a testament to the rapid development of aircraft in the 1930s. Planes that were state of the art in the beginning of the decade were obsolete by the end of it, and when the war broke out, the development was sped up even more. World War 2 was a period of rapid technological advances.

Into the great wide open

A column of Panzerkampfwagen IV tanks make its way across a featureless Soviet landscape. The dusty road is rutted by the passing of numerous cars and tanks. This photo is probably from 1941 or the early summer of 1942, and the vehicle on the left could be a Horch all-terrain car with a 2 cm anti-aircraft gun, towing an ammunition trailer. The markings appear to be those of Beobachtungs-Abteilung 27 (right side of trailer), combined with the symbol of Panzergruppe 3 (the “Hh”-like symbol) and the H-in-a-circle for an independent army unit. This poses a bit of a problem, though, as records show that Beo.Abt.27 was assigned to the 17th Army in 1941. Something doesn’t add up, but then the records are incomplete for many units during the war.

The Beobachtungs-Abteilung 27 was one of 40 artillery observation battalions, which used several means of locating enemy artillery for counter-battery fire, like observation of muzzle flashes and gun sound, and from balloons. They initially had an anti-aircraft platoon, which was removed after 1942. The battalion was transferred to the West in 1944, and surrendered to the Allies in the Netherlands in May 1945.

The problem with properly identifying the unit puzzled several of the members of an Eastern Front-themed FaceBook group. As many of them are very knowledgeable and accomplished researchers and authors, I’ll have to be content with that we might never know the exact circumstances regarding that photo. As it had been mounted in an album, it’s a prime example of what happens when a photo is removed from its context.

Off to an uncertain fate

A long column of Soviet prisoners of war march to the rear in the hot summer weather of 1941. They have surrendered to the 10. Panzer-Division, and don’t know what fate they’ll meet when handed over to security units in the rear. The Wehrmacht treated the Soviet PoWs like the subhumans the Nazis regarded them as. The death rate was horrible, and was the result of part a murderous ideology, part insufficient logistics as the Germans weren’t prepared to deal with hundreds of thousands of prisoners.

The war on the Eastern Front took on a brutal character from the very beginning. Both sides committed massacres and killed prisoners. The ideological aspect aggravated it, as Nazism and Communism were competing for domination. Nazi Germany was worse by a few degrees, as it had a genocidal streak, but the USSR wasn’t exactly a shining example of humanism, either. The purges and terror against its own people began under Lenin, and Stalin cranked it up even more. Couple that with a tendency to view soldiers as a faceless resource, where millions of them were wasted because of orders not to retreat despite hopeless situations, and one can understand why the Eastern Front was such a horrible place. Hitler wasted the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, too, with “no retreat” orders. Add to this the plight of the civilian Soviet citizens and the Jews, and the result is the bloodiest war in history. Let’s hope it stays that.

Over the mountains

This photo presents a puzzle: those are the graves of German Gebirgsjäger (mountain rangers), but the helmets on top of the crosses are the paratrooper model. The photo was taken in 1940 near Narvik, Norway, and that gives us a clue…

The fighting for Narvik proved to be harder than the Germans expected. Getting reinforcements to the area was a challenge, but some Gebirgsjäger units got some parachute training, and where dropped over the area on 23 May 1940. On 28 May, a combined force of two French Foreign Legion battalions and a Norwegian battalion, supported by the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, landed near Narvik. The 11. Kompanie, Gebirgs-Jäger-Regiment 137, belonging to the 2. Gebirgs-Division and commanded by Oberleutnant Erich Schwaiger, rushed from the area of Bjørnfjell to Forsneset to counter the landing force. Artillery fire from the Royal Navy ships inflicted heavy casualties on the Austrian mountain rangers. Schwaiger was killed together with several of his men, among them Gefreiter (Private) Fritz Wild and Gefreiter Johann Grübler. The Allied force captured Narvik, but due to the German offensive in France, the French and British withdrew ten days later. Narvik and Norway were in German hands on 10 June.

The two soldiers in the graves in the photo (the third one was buried without a name on the cross, perhaps because he couldn’t be identified) were Fritz Wild, born on 7 December 1916 in Kapfenberg, Austria, and Johann Grubler, born on 2 September 1916, presumably in Austria. Neither of them got to see their 24th birthday. Their remains were later moved to the war cemetery in Narvik.

While researching the photo, I had uncovered most of the information, but I googled a bit more and came across this blog post by military historian Lars Gyllenhaal. The photo in that post appears to be from the same roll of film, as save for a few spots and blemishes, it’s identical.

A brief skirmish

Somewhere on the Western Front, May or June 1940. A column of German vehicles stands to the side of a road, while a couple of Panzerkampfwagen I Ausf.B sit in the field to the left. A house goes up in flames, perhaps a knocked out point of resistance for a group of enemy soldiers. Judging by the soldiers standing unconcerned in the middle of the road, the fighting has moved on. Forward elements are up ahead, securing the road for continued advance.

When we think of war and battles, we tend to think of big clashes and intense fighting. In many cases it was more like this – skirmishes, temporary halts while units to the side or up ahead engage the enemy, passing signs of combat like burning buildings, wrecked vehicles, the bodies of friends and foes. I’ve read accounts by soldiers who didn’t fire their weapons for months. As a soldier, the overall situation can be confusing, your knowledge restricted to what you can see and whatever the officers tell you. That’s why I found a posthumous memoir by a German soldier, “Eastern Inferno” by Hans Roth, a bit suspicious. It’s an intense account, and many details check out, but his grasp on the overall strategic situation hints at later editing or additions by the editor. If he had been a staff officer, then his knowledge of the identity of adjacent units and their objectives would’ve been logical, but hardly as a man in the ranks. It differed noticeably from the 30 or so memoirs by veterans I’ve read. In short, it’s a bit too good to be true.

Someone said that war is “months of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror”. For the men at the forefront of a campaigning army, the spells of boredom were shorter, but combat could still be very much a case of “hurry up and wait”. In mobile warfare, you seldom know what’s behind the corner or the next bend of the road, and that goes for the men in the photo above.

“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.