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.


A pioneer that went a long way

The first time I saw the photos posted here, I thought that the caption might be wrong. A Renault FT tank in Russia 1942? Shouldn’t that be France in 1940? Then I read about the tank and the armies which used it, and things became clearer, even though a mystery still remained.

The small Renault FT tank debuted on the battlefield in 1918, armed with either a short 37 mm cannon or an 8 mm machinegun. The crew consisted of a driver and a commander, the latter also acting as gunner. While it might not look that impressive, its design nonetheless set the standard for tanks for a century and counting. It was sold to several countries, and saw use in conflicts between the world wars, and also during WW2 and beyond. In the East, Renault FTs were used by Poland, Lithuania, and the USSR. The Germans captured several hundred tanks in the Battle of France in 1940, but they were mostly used in the occupied countries in western Europe.

The camouflage paintjob could be Polish. The tank might be one captured from the Poles, either in the Polish-Soviet war of 1919-21, or in 1939. The Red Army didn’t use them in WW2. Anyway, for some reason it ended up far away from the Renault factory in France, but not as far as some of the tanks captured in 1921. Eight of them were given to Afghanistan, where they were decommissioned in the 1950s. What happened to the tank in the photos, then? We don’t know, but if it was still in working condition, it might have been used for rear area security.
renault_ft2In this view, it is apparent that the tail skid that was intended to make crossing trenches easier has been damaged in some way, as it isn’t attached to the upper fastening point.

Here’s a video for those of you who want to know more about the Renault FT.

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.

In for a humpy ride

A German soldier has a snug seat between the humps of a Bactrian camel. The place is probably southern Russia, north of the Caucasus Mountains, and the time is 1942 or 1943. I can imagine that few soldiers pictured themselves riding camels one day when they crossed the Soviet border. The push in the southeast was a bid to capture the oil fields at Baku, and thus secure the supply of oil and gas for the fuel-starved Wehrmacht. The Battle for Stalingrad was part of the greater plan, and the failure to capture the city and secure the flank meant that the German positions in the Caucasus region became precarious. The Germans had to retreat.

The man on the hay wagon is probably a Hiwi, a Soviet volunteer who accepted to serve as an auxiliary instead of facing the much darker prospects in a prisoner of war camp. The camels didn’t have much of a say at all.

At the crossroads

Summer of 1941, outside the town of Nevel in western Russia. The wreck of a Soviet T-26 tank stands forlornly by the roadside, while the German signposts signal who the new masters are. Nevel was captured by the Germans on 16 July 1941, and it took almost two years and three months before it was liberated.

The signs show the directions for a medical aid station, a prisoner of war collection point, an ammunition depot, a fuel depot, the headquarters of an antiaircraft regiment, a home leave supervision office, and many more. A collection of signs like this was called a Schilderwald – a forest of signs. It is an indication of the many and varied units and installations behind the front lines, where the system for the units at the front did what it could to support the fighting.

One would think that life behind the front was safe and cushy, and it was most of the time, but with mounting partisan activity, rear area units were prime targets for raids and sabotage. As the fortunes of war turned against the Germans, clerks and support personnel would find themselves sent to reinforce crumbling frontlines, clutching rifles not fired since basic training. In October 1943, the signs were kicked over by advancing Soviet troops, and replaced with similar signs in Russian.

On this day in 1942…

Obergefreiter Ignaz Mittermayer from Viechtwang in Austria was killed. This death card is one of the few things that reminds us that he lived at all. The surname might be spelled wrong on the card, which made it harder to find his file on Volksbund, where it’s spelled “Mittermayr” (or the Volksbund might be in error, as can be the case on occasion). He was born on 27 January 1917, and was probably conscripted into the Army in 1938, shortly after Austria was added to the Greater German Reich. He served in Infanterie-Regiment 135 in the 45. Infanterie-Division, one of several purely Austrian divisions in the Wehrmacht. He was probably a participant in the occupation of Moravia (in Czechoslovakia) in 1939, and then in the invasion of Poland later that year. In 1940, the Division took part in the Battle of France. Like so many other divisions, it was then deployed on the eastern border for the invasion of the USSR in 1941. A year and six days after crossing the border, Ignaz Mittermayer was dead. He had survived the harsh winter of 1941-42, and had received the Infantry Assault Badge, which was awarded for participation in three assaults on three different days.

Googling his name caused some confusion, though. One hit turned up the book “Als der Osten brannte” by Henning Stüring (2011), which lists an Obergefreiter Ignaz Mittermayer, who was born in 1917 and a soldier in the 45. Infanterie-Division, as killed in action a year earlier on 22 June 1941. A check with Volksbund cleared things up – his name was Ignaz Mittermaier, and happened to be a guy born the same year, with almost the same name, and of the same rank. This just proves that in all research, it’s important to check things like birth dates in order to confirm the identity of persons.

Still, the date of his death differs between the card and the official record; the card says 29 June, the record says the 28th. There might’ve been some confusion at the time, but I go with the official record. Ignaz was probably buried close to where he fell, which was Bukhtiyarovo, a tiny village in Orel oblast, Russia. Any grave marker might have been destroyed when the Red Army liberated the area; it was common that German graves were desecrated, crosses kicked over and burned. That’s why his remains haven’t been recovered and put to rest at the German war cemetery at Kursk-Besedino. His name can be found in the memorial book there, though.

He was pushing his luck, anyway. The Division was wiped out in June 1944, and had to be rebuilt as the 45. Grenadier-Division. By the end of the war, what was left of it went into Soviet captivity. Service on the Eastern Front was harsh.

The poem on his card translates as: “In lands far away I have to die, in foreign earth my grave I found, but my soul moved to the homeland, to the heavens of the Fatherland. So live well, you all beloved, and do not weep. Oh, comfort yourself, in just a little, little time, we’ll see each other in the Kingdom of heaven.” On the back, the text says: “Jesus, my God, I love you above everything.”

Operation Barbarossa, day 3

Men and vehicles of the 35. Infanterie-Division advance eastwards on 24 June 1941, on the third day of the invasion of the Soviet Union. They move through the part of Poland that was occupied by the USSR in 1939, when Hitler and Stalin divided the country between them. The Division is heading towards Bialystok, where it will take part in the capture of the city three days later.

The 35. Infanterie-Division was raised in Karlsruhe on 1 October 1936, as part of the remilitarization of Germany. It was kept on the western border during the first months of the war, and got its baptism of fire in May 1940, when it broke through the fortifications in the Dutch-Belgian border area. It was kept in reserve for the second part of the campaign, and was later stationed on the Belgian coast, slated for participation in an eventual invasion of Britain. In April 1941, it was moved to the German-Soviet border in preparation for operation Barbarossa.

After the capture of Bialystok, it advanced with the rest of the 9th Army towards Smolensk, where it suffered heavy losses in a Soviet counterattack near the small town Dukhovshchina (northeast of Smolensk). The Division was part of Operation Typhoon, the advance on Moscow, but worsening weather and the Red Army counteroffensive saw it retreat to the area of Gzhatsk (renamed in 1968 as Gagarin), where it remained for all of 1942. 1943 and 1944 were spent in defensive battles, and when the Soviet offensive on the second anniversary of Operation Barbarossa hit the German frontlines, the 35. Infanterie-Division had to be pulled back for rest and refit after having had to break out of the Bobruisk encirclement.

More defensive battles ensued, and from mid-January 1945, the Division defended German soil in West Prussia. Part of the Division was evacuated west to Schleswig-Holstein, while the rest went into Soviet captivity.