About to head out

A group of lieutenants going through orders. Platoon commanders in what appears to be a mounted unit – reconaissance, most likely – (riding breeches, boots and spurs hint at that), there’s little that gives any hint about time or location, The lack of medals makes me think it’s during the initial phases of Operation Barbarossa, though. The second guy from the right carries a captured Soviet PPD-40 submachine gun.

The PPD (Pistolet-Pulemyot Degtyarova) was developed in 1934. It was adopted by the Red Army in 1935 and entered production as the PPD-34. Made in small numbers, it was mostly issued to the NKVD, foremost to border guards. Slightly modified in 1938, it was re-designed after the Winter War with Finland (1939-40), adopting a copy of the Finnish 70-round drum magazine (71 rounds in the Soviet version), thus becoming the PPD-40. After the German invasion in 1941, it was soon discovered that the PPD-40 was less than ideal for wartime production, so it was quickly replaced by the more inexpensive and easier to produce PPSh-41, the iconic SMG of the Red Army. The PPD-40 was a first generation submachine gun, and an indifferent weapon useful mainly for the large magazine capacity.

It was rather common among troops to use captured enemy weapons, as long as there was access to captured ammunition stocks. The officer to right in the photo carries the MP-40 (or MP-38) he was issued. One advantage of using a captured weapon is that it doesn’t give away the shooter as an enemy due to the sound, which might give an element of surprise. On the other hand, it might also confuse friendly troops…

Advertisements

Wehrmacht European Tour 1940

“Saarbrücken”, “Boulogne”, “Calais”, “Langemark”, “Dünkirchen” (Dunkirk), “Ipern” (Ypres), “Zeeland”… The names painted on the 9.7 ton Sd.Kfz. 7 towing a 15-cm schwere Feldhaubitze sFH 18 tells of the campaign in the West. I haven’t been able to identify the artillery battalion or regiment the howitzer and its crew belonged to. Artillery units are usually only mentioned in passing, and remain largely anonymous despite their importance on the battlefield.

The 15 cm caliber heavy field howitzer could lob a 43.5 kilo grenade 13 kilometers, making it useful for softening up enemy positions prior to assaults. Soviet artillery could fire at greater ranges, which put the sFH 18 at a definite disadvantage in case of counter-battery fire. At 5.5 tons, an artillery tractor like the Sd.Kfz. 7 was useful in moving it, but it could also be pulled by a team of horses. The gun crew rode in relative comfort, the halftrack being spacious enough to hold their personal kit, as well as the ammunition for the howitzer. In case of rain or snow, a canvas roof could be erected.

The gun crew in the photo probably travelled eastwards in 1941, attached to or part of a motorized division. Did they end up in the Courland Pocket, in the destruction of Army Group Center, or were their unit wiped out in Stalingrad? It’s impossible to know, but one thing is pretty sure: that road trip in the summer of 1940 was probably a fond memory once the harshness of the Eastern Front became evident.

This is my rifle, this is my gun…

Recruits cleaning their Mauser Karabiner 98 kurz rifles, probably before 1939 as the rifles have neither the sight hoods, nor the cupped butt-plates adopted in 1939 and 1940, respectively. The Kar98k was the standard rifle of the Wehrmacht, with a staggering 14.6 million made between 1935 and 1945. It was a is a bolt-action rifle chambered for the 7.92×57mm Mauser cartridge, and was adopted in 1935 as the standard service rifle by the Wehrmacht. It was one of the final developments in the long line of Mauser military rifles, and is regarded as one of the best bolt-action rifles of all time. Although supplemented by semi- and fully automatic rifles during WW2, it remained the primary service rifle until the end of the war.

It was in February 1934 that the Heereswaffenamt (Army Weapons Agency) ordered the adoption of a new military rifle. The Karabiner 98k was derived from earlier rifles, namely the Mauser Kar98b, which in turn had been developed from the Gewehr 98, the standard German rifle in WW1. Just like its predecessors, the rifle was noted for its reliability, great accuracy and an effective range of up to 500 metres with iron sights. Its internal magazine could be loaded with five 7.92×57mm Mauser cartridges from a stripper clip or one-by-one. The straight bolt handle found on the Gewehr 98 bolt was replaced by a turned-down bolt handle. This change made it easier to rapidly operate the bolt, and reduced the amount the handle projected beyond the receiver.

While the Americans had standardized the semi-automatic M1 Garand in 1936, the Germans kept to the bolt-action Kar98k due to their tactical doctrine of basing a squad’s firepower on the machine gun. The role of the rifleman was largely to carry ammunition and provide covering fire for the machine gunners. All German soldiers trained on the Kar98k in basic training, and while they didn’t stress markmanship like the British, or rate of fire like the Americans, the Kar98k served them well throughout the war. While they introduced their own semi-automatic rifle (the Gewehr 43) and the world’s first successful assault rifle (the Sturmgewehr 44), those were produced in less than 900,000 units total, the Kar98k was the mainstay of the German Army.

Sweden adopted the Mauser system in 1896, and the “Swedish Mausers” are held in high regard for their high standard of manufacture and precision. Using a 6.5 mm caliber round, it differs in some minor ways from the German Mausers, but it is a prominent member of the Mauser legacy.

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.

1 September, 1939

A German gun crew manning a 15-cm Kanone 18 outside Ostrowo, Poland. While it doesn’t say on the back of the photo that it’s 1 September, or indeed which of the dozen or so places named “Ostrowo”, I like to think that they have fired the first shots of World War 2. Well, the very first shots had been fired in Danzig (modern-day Gdansk), when the old battleship Schleswig-Holstein opened fire on the Polish military depot Westerplatte. The day before, SS and Sicherheitsdienst operatives had staged several false flag incidents, like the Gleiwitz Incident, in order to make it look like the Poles carried out attacks across the Polish-German border. One of the reasons why Hitler wanted to attack Poland was to reestablish the connection with the free city of Danzig, which had been cut off from the German Reich as a consequence of  the changed borders after WW1. To make matters worse for the Poles, Hitler had an agreement with USSR’s dictator Joseph Stalin, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which divided up eastern Europe in spheres of interest. A couple of weeks later, the Red Army invaded Poland from the east, which sealed the fate of the country.

A ditched gun and a puzzle

Near the Desna River in eastern Ukraine, July 1941, a couple of soldiers belonging to Army Group Center take a look at a ditched Soviet 152 mm howitzer-gun M1937 (ML-20). The ML-20 was one of the most successful Soviet artillery pieces of WW2. Its characteristics positioned it between classical short-range howitzers and special long-range guns. Like so many other Red Army guns left behind, this one will probably be pressed into German service, designated as 15,2-cm Kanonenhaubitze 433/1(r).

The photo is interesting as it makes me wonder who the guy who took it was. On the back of it is pencilled: “Ecce quam bonum et quam jucundum habitare fratres in unum” (“Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity”), a line from psalm 133. The combination of education and irony appeals to me. Did his erudition and wit see him through the war, or did he end up beneath a birch cross somewhere in the depths of Russia? If so, which psalm was sung over him in the church back in his home town? Or did he return after the war to pick up his civilian career? So many questions, so few answers…

Mortar Combat

Three Gefreiter (lance corporals) using a light mortar, the 5 cm leichter Granatwerfer 36 (5 cm leGrW 36). It could lob a 0.9 kg grenade up to 520 meters, and provided fire support at platoon and company level. It was easy to transport, but over-engineered, with not enough of a range and too light a round. Still, it was useful in the early years of the war. Production was discontinued in 1941, and the weapon phased out as mortars were lost and ammunition stocks dwindled.

The soldiers wear greatcoats, the second guy from the right clad in the all-grey version introduced in 1940. His comrades wear the M1939, which has a dark green, more narrow collar. They all wear double decal helmets; the black-white-red national colors shield was eliminated in 1940, and the eagle decal in 1943. Still, helmets could still be seen sporting decals by the end of the war.