He dug his own grave

This photo is a grim reminder of the realities of war. A Soviet rifleman is slumped at the bottom of his foxhole, his lopata entrenching tool resting on the forward edge of the well-dug hole. His Mosin-Nagant M1891 rifle sticks up, fired no one knows how many times before he was killed. A couple of books lies thrown to the ground, and some sort of satchel can be glimpsed in front of the body. Perhaps a German soldier rifled through it, looking for useful documents like maps, or just something of value.

Red Army soldiers were known for their ability to quickly dig in, finding protection even in the flattest of terrain. That didn’t help the poor soldier here, and I guess he was buried where he fell, someone just filling in the hole, probably not even putting a grave marker on top. Somewhere, a wife, girlfriend or mother got a note that Ivan or Piotr or Alyosha was missing in combat. After some years, he would be officially declared dead, but his family and friends would never stop hoping that he might return one day.

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Just add polar bears

Three soldiers from the 253. Infanterie-Division pose with their newly built igloo, somewhere west of Rzhev late in the winter of 1942-43. Well, with all that snow lying around on the ground, why not put it to good use?

The 253. Infanterie-Division had been in the USSR since day 1 of Operation Barbarossa. Stalled near Moscow together with other divisions by the Red Army winter offensive, the division had to retreat to the Rzhev area. There it stayed for all of 1942, seeing some heavy fighting. A few months after this photo was taken, the division was pulled out of the line for some much-needed rest and refit in July 1943. Then followed a series of battles and a steady retreat, until the 253. Infanterie-Division surrendered in Moravia in May 1945, the remaining soldiers entering Soviet captivity.

Snow forts are for amateurs

Halfway to Christmas, and making my 12th post with a wintry theme for this December. The photo for today features the tank obstacles known as dragon’s teeth, which I’ve written about earlier. The location is probably on the Franco-German border, the time most likely during the “Phoney War” in 1939-40, when German and French troops mostly glared at each other for a few months, before the Germans had the temerity to bypass the nice line of fortifications the French had built for the express purpose of keeping said Germans out. The concrete obstacles pictured here were part of the German Westwall, which was called “the Siegfried Line” by the British.

After the invasion of France in 1940, the obstacles gathered moss for almost five years before troops passed them again, this time from west to east. When the Allies pierced the Westwall, there were fierce battles like the meatgrinder in the Hürtgen Forest, but in other places, the too-late improved fortifications didn’t offer much resistance.

A patriotic poem written in 1840 and turned into a song in 1854 was “Die Wacht am Rhein“, which was a statement against the threat from France. It enjoyed popularity during the conflicts that followed.

 

“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.

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How the pop-up gun turret worked. Source: Wikipedia.

Seaside property

Half a platoon of soldiers – two squads – and the bunker they man. The place is somewhere on the coast of continental Europe, probably France or Denmark. The bunker is one of the more than 15,000 bunkers, fortifications, strongpoints and gun emplacements built by the Germans between 1942 and 1944, intended to stave off an Allied invasion. It was called the “Atlantic Wall”, but it wasn’t an unbroken chain of fortifications. As the German High Command didn’t know where an invasion would take place, there were bunkers all the way from the northernmost point of Norway all the way to the Franco-Spanish border. The heaviest defenses where in the Pas-de-Calais region, where the distance between France and Britain is the shortest. As we all know, the Allies let the Germans believe that they would invade there, all the while they prepared for the landings in Normandy.

The artillery installed was a plethora of captured guns from several European armies, which – with the many differing calibers involved – presented a logistical nightmare. The 300,000 troops manning the Atlantic Wall were mostly second-line units, usually older soldiers, or soldiers with slight health problems, or “volunteers” recruited from Soviet prisoners of war. They had low mobility, often lacking motor vehicles entirely, and little in the way of artillery. The defenses were not limited to bunkers, but consisted of minefields and obstacles, too. In the end, the defenses were breached in the one spot where it mattered – Normandy.

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When some friends and I visited Normandy for the 70th anniversary of D-Day in 2014, we looked at several sites with German bunkers, like this one on Utah Beach in the photo above. The remains of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall are something for tourists to visit today, and a trip to Normandy provides ample opportunities for study of bunkers, a few of which have been restored and kept as museums and memorials over a time long gone, yet still present today.

Tucked in for the winter

In my series of posts on fieldworks and dugouts, you could see dugouts both neat and rough. This one, probably from the winter of 1941-42, belongs to the “neat” category. Partially dug under a big, stout barn and heated by a woodburning stove, it provides a nice shelter for the soldiers. Having a warm, safe place to stay in meant the difference between life and death during that harsh winter. Tens of thousands of soldiers suffered frostbite, and thousands more froze to death. Those not fortunate enough to be dug in like the soldiers in the photo had to find winter quarters that kept them out of the worst cold. That usually meant cramming themselves into a Russian farmhouse, sharing it with the peasant family, their livestock, fleas and lice. In worst case, the owners were thrown out and left to fend for themselves in the snow. War is cruel, and war in wintertime doubly so.

Fieldworks, part 7:

As a contrast to my post two days ago, this is what most other dugouts looked like. While it might to cosy inside, the outside is serviceable and nothing more. This photo is probably from the later half of 1943, showing a dugout on the Eastern Front. The writing on the back says it’s in a place called “Botchkari”, which probably is Bochkary in Belarus (about halfway between Vitebsk and Minsk), and which was in German hands until the massive Red Army offensive known as Operation Bagration in the summer of 1944. The soldiers in the photo were lucky if they managed to escape the Soviet onslaught.

As already noted, this dugout isn’t as tidy as the previous one. A two-man saw lies behind the man on the left. A stovepipe leans out of the dugout, and a field telephone wire spool holds the last meters of the phone wire leading to company headquarters. Some spruce boughs serve as camouflage, but the overturned sandy soil makes spotting the position from a reconnaisance airplane easy. Today, there’s probably just an overgrown mound with some rotting logs and whatever items the soldiers had to leave behind.