Forging ahead

A lieutenant watches as horse-drawn wagons bring baggage and supplies to the front, using a pontoon bridge built by the Brückenkolonne of a Pionier (combat engineer) battalion. It’s probably during the first weeks of Operation Barbarossa. The retreating Soviets blew up any bridge they could, and those had to be replaced. In some cases, rivers were bridged in unexpected spots in order to make flanking attacks possible. The company-sized bridge-building unit could build longer or shorter bridges, depending on what load they were to handle. The pontoons could also be used when building ferries, as some rivers were simply too wide to be bridged in time. There were inflatable boats, too, which together with assault boats were used for attacks across rivers. Without the combat engineers, the armies would have a much harder time moving forward.

This is the last post in the five-part series about my WW2 interest and the ways it manifests itself. I will return to different aspects of it in future posts, elaborating on the themes that I find interesting.

In June 2014, I and some friends went to Normandy for the 70th anniversary of D-Day. We spent a week looking at bunkers and tanks, walking invasion beaches and battlefields, and even had the good fortune to meet and talk to a couple of Allied D-Day veterans. Hopefully I’ll get the opportunity to make similar trips in the future. Over the years, I have met people who experienced WW2 first hand, and I hope to incorporate their stories in one way or other in my posts. I have a project brewing, where I plan to read and analyze the articles published in the German propaganda magazine ”Signal”, comparing how the Germans presented the fighting in Normandy with what really happened. Then I have this blog, which has turned my collecting of original German photos into a way of expressing myself through research and writing, presenting the photos together with capsule histories and trying to put them in a historical context. Hopefully it will broaden the readers’ understanding of the war just as it has broadened mine. That’s my excuse, anyway.

There are times when I get the question “Why waste time on dead people?” Well, the people in the photos are long gone (except perhaps the odd 90+ years old), but they lived during a tumultous period in our history. They would’ve been happier if they had been allowed to live their lives in peace, but that wasn’t to be. Their stories and fates are too often untold and forgotten; I’ve met people who lived through those years and who experienced things that they haven’t even told their own children. While most of the people in the photos I post here will remain anonymous, I want to put them in a context. In a way, if circumstances had been different, we could’ve been them. That alone makes it worth telling about the people and events all those years ago.

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Threat from above

“Luftgefährdet – Verschwinde! – Tarne u[nd] Verdunkle” A warning sign, which roughly translates as “Danger from the air. Take cover! Camoflage and black out [headlights]”. The terrain around Shchigry, a town in Kursk Oblast, Russia, is mostly flat farmland with occasional gullies cut by streams, offering little cover from enemy aircraft. Shchigry is located between the Shchigra and Lesnaya Plata Rivers, 60 kilometers northeast of Kursk. During WW2, the town was occupied by German troops from 21 November 1941 to 5 February 1943. This photo of a Pionier squad resting by the roadside, some soldiers enjoying a smoke, was taken on 31 July, 1942. While the Germans enjoyed aerial superiority most of the time, Soviet attacks were a reality. Half a year later, the Soviet airforce had wrested the control of the skies from the Germans.

Going south

This bright young man is Stabsgefreiter (Senior Lance Corporal) August König of Panzer-Pionier-Bataillon 49. He’s wearing the tropical uniform prior to the deployment of the 10. Panzer-Division to Tunisia. His uniform tells a lot to someone versed in reading German uniform insignia and medals. Apart from the rank chevrons on his sleeve, there’s the black Waffenfarbe (branch of service piping) on his shoulderboards that tells us that he’s in an engineer unit. On his pocket is the Reichssportabzeichen (Reich Sports Badge) in bronze, and the Allgemeines Sturmabzeichen (General Assault Badge) in silver, which was awarded for participation in three assaults on different three days. In his buttonhole is the ribbon of the Eisener Kreuz, 2. Klasse (Iron Cross, second class), which was usually awarded for battlefield bravery. The Iron Cross was a prestigious award early in the war, but during the last years it was awarded more liberally as a morale booster. Anyway, his uniform tells us that he has displayed courage in combat in support of infantry and armored assaults on several occasions.

The 10. Panzer-Division arrived to Tunisia in December, 1942. It was a part of Fifth Panzer Army, and participated in the Battle of Kasserine Pass and several of the other early battles. It also took part in the failed Axis offensive of Operation Ochsenkopf in late February 1943. When the Axis line collapsed in May 1943, the division was trapped. It surrendered on 12 May and was never rebuilt.

I’m fairly certain that August König went into captivity, returning to Germany a couple of years after the war ended. He was the owner of the photo album that was obtained by someone who cut it up and sold off the loose photos on eBay. Much of the context has been lost, and I suspect the best photos were sold off for big money. Still, those I got hold on tells a story, some of which I’ve relayed here.

On the right halftrack

This is the next to last photo of soldiers from Panzer-Pionier-Bataillon 49. The guy whose album the photos are from is sitting behind the wheel of this Zugkraftwagen (tractor truck). It was a bit of a mystery to me, as I wasn’t able to identify the exact model at first, but this is the artillery version of the Sd.Kfz. 6, the Sd.Kfz. 6/1. It is recognized by the absence of the third outer roadwheel.

The family of halftracks of the German army were used to tow artillery, like howitzers, field guns, anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns. They were also used for recovering vehicles, like knocked-out tanks that were to be repaired. Some of them were used as gun platforms, like the AA variant Sd.Kfz. 10/4. Being halftracks, they could negotiate terrain that ordinary trucks would get bogged down in.

I haven’t been able to identify the unit marking on the front fender. It isn’t that of the 10. Panzer-Division, so if anyone knows anything, please leave a comment.

Building bridges, part 2

This photo, which is yet another by a soldier in Panzer-Pionier-Bataillon 49, shows a German and a French officer conferring while French PoWs assist German engineers in building a pontoon bridge across a small river.

About 1.8 million French soldiers were captured during the Battle of France, or about 10 % of the adult male population. Some were repatriated, but most were put in PoW camps, where they had to work for the Germans. Most of those camps were in France, but after repeated escapes, the majority were transferred to Germany and Eastern Europe. They had to perform agricultural and industrial work, as well as mining. Those who were repatriated, or managed to escape, or were released by the war’s end, found that it was hard being accepted back to French society. They weren’t even recognized as veterans until the 1950’s, which affected benefits they could’ve otherwise enjoyed.

In a way, the French PoWs were let down by their country twice. The errors by the military leadership caused the French defeat, not the purported cowardice of French soldiers ignorant people still like to joke about more than 75 years later. Then there were all the issues after the war. Few loves a loser, and the former PoWs, through no fault of their own, experienced what so many other soldiers in defeated armies had to live through.

Building bridges

One of the tasks of the Pioniere-Bataillonen was to build bridges. Bridges have always been important in the history of warfare. Control them, and you control lines of supply and routes of advance. As a measure to deny an advancing enemy direct routes into your own territory, you destroy the bridges. This is where the engineer units come in. If the blown bridge can’t be repaired, a new one needs to be built. Sometimes a fixed bridge, like the one in the photo, is sufficient, but in the case of wider rivers, a pontoon bridge is usually the only option. Engineer units had been a feature of warfare since at least Roman times, and things weren’t different during WW2.

A German Pionier-Bataillon was equipped with inflatable boats, bridge-laying equipment, ferries, mines, barbed wire, smoke projectors, etc. It had the capacity for assaults across rivers. The clip below is from the German documentary movie Sieg im Westen (“Victory in the West”), and the first minutes show Pioniere in action.

The heat is on

The Pioniere were combat engineers, and in their arsenal were weapons such as flamethrowers. The soldier carrying the Flammenwerfer 35 is wearing a rubberized protective suit, and a visor is attached to his helmet. The flamethrower fired a jet of burning liquid, a mix of gasoline and tar. It was a feared weapon, used for clearing houses, bunkers and trenches. A flamethrower operator could expect to be targeted by enemy fire, which made the Germans sometimes try to conceal the “gun” part by making it look like a rifle. As the fuel was ignited by pressing a trigger, there was no revealing pilot flame. Any flamethrower operator who was captured couldn’t expect any mercy – that’s how hated the weapon was.

The photo is probably from training back in Germany or France, where the Pioniere of the 10. PzDiv were garrisoned between campaigns.