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.

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Stukas im Visier

Schwarm (“swarm”, equivalent to a flight) of Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive-bombers flies over Luftwaffe anti-aircraft gun positions. The photo is probably from the summer of 1942, somewhere on the southern part of the Eastern Front. I haven’t been able to identify the AA gun unit, but the album with photos from 1942-43 I own indicates that the unit made it all the way down to Kislovodsk in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains in 1943, making it one of the units that penetrated the furthest into the USSR. The unit had to retreat later in the summer that year, a retreat that went on until the Red Army captured Berlin.

The Stuka bombers were organized slightly different from fighters. Three bombers made up a Kette (“chain”) and two Ketten a Schwarm. Three Schwärme became a Staffel, the equivalent of a squadron, with a total of 18 bombers. For fighters, it was two Rotten of two fighters each in a Schwarm, and a fighter Staffel with three Schwärme had twelwe fighters, making it smaller than an Allied squadron.

The Junkers Ju 87 Stuka (short for “Sturzkampfflugzeug” – “dive combat aircraft”) was used for tactical bombing, and sometimes called “flying artillery” when attacking bridges, railway marshalling yards, ships and other relatively small targets. The Ju 87 was slow, and had usually to be escorted by fighters in areas where the Germans didn’t have supremacy in the air. The “G” version of the Stuka was armed with two 3.7 cm antitank guns, and was a devastating weapon when handled by aces like Hans-Ulrich Rudel (credited with 519 tank kills). Some 6,500 Ju 87 were built, but only two have survived intact.

Below is a short montage of Stukas in action, taken from newsreels and propaganda movies.

 

Bring on the light show

The sky over a nameless Soviet town is lit up by searchlights and anti-aircraft fire. Nighttime Red Army Air Force raids kept the Germans on their toes, especially the “Night Witches”, female pilots who in the cover of darkness made life miserable for enemy troops. The town in the photo is protected by AA guns, mainly 2.0 cm automatic cannons and the famous 8.8 cm gun, putting up quite a light show as well as a bloody racket. It is doubtful the anti aircraft gunners brought down any enemy aircraft, but I guess few in that town got a full night’s sleep.

Rolling forward

Vehicles of the leichte Flak-Abteilung 74 (mot) (74th light motorised anti-aircraft battalion) roll forward in the central sector of the Eastern Front in the dust and heat of the summer of 1941. The unit is equipped with Flak 30 2 cm caliber automatic AA guns. The unit symbol, an oakleaf and two acorns within a rectangle, can be seen on the right fender of the nearest gun.

The leichte Flak-Abteilung 74 (mot) was raised on 15 November 1938 in Essen-Kupferdreh from the II/Flak-Regiment 44. During the campaign in France, the battalion was suborned to the staff of Flak-Regiment 202. When the campaign in France was over, the battalion was deployed in the Dunkirk area. It was assigned to Panzer-Gruppe 1 in April 1941 and deployed in the Balkans. From June 1941, it fought in the USSR as part of Panzer-Gruppe 4, attached to the 20. Panzer-Division, and saw heavy action during the series of advances on Minsk and Smolensk, and took part in Operation Typhoon, the failed attack on Moscow. In 1942/43 the battalion was assigned to the staff of the 18. Flak-Division and from February 1944 to the staff of the Flak-Regiment 134. In November 1944, the battalion was deployed was in the Eifel mountains on the western border of Germany. There’s no information on the final fate of the unit, but it probably surrendered to Allied forces in the spring of 1945. 

I spy with my little eye…

Luftwaffe Flak personnel using a Kommandogerät 36 (Kdo. Gr. 36) rangefinder, which is part of a battery of four 8.8 cm anti aircraft guns. Using trigonometry, the 4-meter base stereoscopic range finder has a magnification of 12x and 24x, and a range scale reading from 500 meters (550 yards) to 50,000 meters (55,000 yards). It is clamped by two rings to the mount, and kept in a chest while in transit. The instrument is manufactured by the famous Carl Zeiss optics company in Jena, and displays excellent workmanship.

The Kommandogerät 36 measures target course and speed. Ballistic data are obtained from graphical drums; varying heights are accepted, and corrections can be applied for wind, drift, displacement, dead time, and variations in muzzle velocity. Readings must be called out to the operator on the director. Information is passed from one operator to another by voice and via a telephone system. The target data are used to set the fuses of the grenades and to provide aiming points for the guns.

Period photos of this particular piece of equipment are relatively scarce on the Internet, so I’m happy to own this photograph.

After action maintenance

The crew of an Sd.Kfz 10/4 cleaning the Flak 30 2 cm caliber automatic AA gun. The Sd.Kfz 10 was a light artillery tractor, and by mounting a Flugabwehrkanone 30 on it, it became a mobile AA gun platform. Each vehicle carried 13 20-round box magazines, one of which can be seen in the hands of the soldier on the left. It took six seconds to empty a magazine, which required the loader to exchange them quickly if the fire rate was to be maintained.

An early war Army anti-aircraft company (Flugabwehr-Kompanie) was organized in three platoons with a total of eighteen Sd.Kfz. 10/4s, twelve with guns and six carrying ammunition. The Sd.Kfz 10/4 was used by both Army and Luftwaffe AA units. It was deployed against both air and ground targets, but a major drawback was the poor protection of the crews against shrapnel and small-caliber fire. Later versions had armor plating added. In 1941, the four-barreled 2 cm Flakvierling 38 was fielded, providing fearsome firepower at an effective range up to 2200 meters for air targets.

The photo is probably from 1940-41. The crew has parked the vehicle in the cover of trees, which implies that there might be a threat from enemy aircraft. The off-white linen Drillich uniforms hint that it isn’t immediate, though, as the crew seems to have enough time to change out of their regular field uniforms. Better safe than sorry, though, as they wouldn’t want to be caught flat-footed by enemy aircraft while the gun is dismounted for a thorough cleaning.

“Acht-acht”, part 2

This very nice photo of an “88” is in an album I own, once put together by a member of an as of yet unidentified Luftwaffe anti-aircraft unit. The gun crew is showing their piece to a gaggle of officers and functionaries. The man on the right, wearing a swastika armband and an NSDAP badge, is probably a member of some Nazi Party organization. At first, I thought he was in the Reichsluftschutzbund (National Air Raid Protection League), but the uniform doesn’t look right for that. One of the little mysteries of the uniform-obsessed Reich

Other photos in the album show the unit advancing through the Soviet Union as part of Army Group South, possibly in the 1. Panzerarmee. A postcard shows that the unit reached Kislovodsk, deep in the Caucasus, in late 1942. I guess the anonymous Luftwaffe soldier made it out alive when the Red Army launched a counteroffensive in 1943, but his final fate remains unknown.