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.

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Greece is the word

Hans, a young Gebirgsjäger, stands in front of the Acropolis in Athens, Greece, after the German capture of the city on 27 April, 1941. He serves in the 6. Gebirgs-Division, one of the elite mountain ranger divisions that saw action on most fronts. It was established in June 1940, spent its first time on occupation duty in France. It was relocated to Poland and then got its baptism of fire in “Operation Marita”, which was the code name for the invasion of Greece. In September that year it was deployed to Finnish Lapland, where it remained until the Germans were forced out from Finland after the armistice between Finland and the USSR in September 1944. It surrendered to British forces in Norway in May 1945.

About twelve years later, my father visited Athens as a young sailor, and went sightseeing. He had a look at the Acropolis; he took a photo that still hangs in my childhood home. The Third Reich had been gone for almost as many years as it had existed. Athens and the Acropolis still stood, while Berlin slowly rose from the ashes. In the annals of history, both Athens and the Third Reich will stand out, but for different reasons.

Kameraden in Karelia

This photo puzzled me at first. The soldiers aren’t wearing the regular Army uniforms, but the boots and caps typical of the mountain troops, but no Edelweiss cap badges nor any sleeve patches are in evidence (like on the cap worn by the guy in the front row looking left). The terrain indicates the northern part of the Eastern Front, but the location jotted down on the back, “Kairalle”, didn’t show up in a Google Maps search. I had a feeling that the photo was taken in Finland, and together with the date on the back (11 June 1942), it was easy to pinpoint the unit in question: the 7. Gebirgs-Division (not to be confused with the 7. SS-Freiwilligen-Gebirgs-Division “Prinz Eugen”, which was active in Yugoslavia). Sure enough, at the time in question, the Division was located to Kaurila in Karelia, Finland. It was also known as the “Bergschuh-Division” because of its unit sign, a white mountain boot on a red shield.

The 7. Gebirgs-Division was set up on 15 November 1941 at the military training area Grafenwöhr, north-east of Nürnberg (Nuremberg to you Anglo-American types) in Bavaria. The division was formed by the reclassification of the 99. leichten Infanterie-Division. Part of the division was grouped together in the group “Hoffmeister” and deployed to the northern sector of the Eastern Front, where it fought south of Leningrad. The remainder of the division was combined to form the group “Krakau” and sent to Finland, among them the men in the photo. It saw action in defensive battles in the Uhtua area, then followed by fighting at Kiestinki in northern Karelia. The division was reunited in August 1942, and remained in the Kiestinki sector. The division participated in the battles for the “Bunker Ridge” in the Sennosero area. Subsequently, the division went over to the defense here and held positions until 1944. Following the armistice between Finland and the USSR in September 1944, the division withdrew via Rovaniemi and Tornio to Narvik, rounding the northern part of Sweden. At the end of the war, the division surrendered to British forces at Lillehammer and went into captivity.

Artillery in high places

A group of Gebirgsjäger looking at a 7,5-cm-Gebirgsgeschütz 36 L/19,3. The elite mountain rangers were rated as light infantry, as they couldn’t bring heavy vehicles or weapons with them in the mountains. What couldn’t be carried by the men had to be carried by mules, and that meant that heavier weapons must be able to be broken down in smaller loads. The 7.5-cm mountain gun 36 L/19.3 was developed between 1935 and 1938 by the arms manufacturer Rheinmetall, and introduced in 1940/41. It was a welcome addition to the arsenal of the Gebirgsjäger units, as it provided firepower in places where every advantage was needed and regular artillery couldn’t reach.

The 7,5-cm-Gebirgsgeschütz 36 soon became the standard weapon of the mountain artillery due to its good ballistic properties in both low and high trajectories, and was used by light mountain batteries until the end of the war. The 750 kg gun could be pulled by a couple of mules, or broken up in eight loads weighing 80-116 kilograms to be carried by mules with special pack saddles. It was served by a crew of five, and could fire six to eight 6 kg shells a minute up to 9.250 meters. The guns were used in batteries of four guns each.

North by Northeast

Gebirgsjäger (mountain ranger) posing together with a couple of young Sami women (in traditional clothing), Finnish Lapland, probably the winter of 1941-42. The truck to the left and the trailer carry the Edelweiss flower emblem of the 6. Gebirgs-Division. The other truck has the tactical sign of a mountain ranger motorized signals company vehicle. The firewood on the trailer and in the sack will be welcome in the sub-Arctic cold.

It might appear strange that at least four mountain ranger divisions were sent to the Finnish Lapland front, as the tallest mountain in that part of Finland is Korvatunturi (486 meters/1594 feet over the sea), which to people raised in the Alps is nothing more than a speed bump. The reason was that they were considered experts in winter warfare, but as their Finnish brothers-in-arms were under diplomatic pressure to not launch any major offensive on the port city of Murmansk or the railroad carrying supplies to the south, the front was relatively quiet for long periods of time.

A little-known fact is that Sweden allowed the Germans to use a couple of large warehouses outside the port of Luleå for storing supplies (mostly foodstuff) for the troops in Norway and Finland. They were destroyed in a fire in 2016.