Shaft of the spear

While the tip of the spear – the tanks – is pushing ahead, the rest of a Panzer-Division is following. Medical and supply trucks are almost bumper to bumper, while a couple of PaK 36 anti-tank guns are on the side of the road, an Sd.Kfz 10 halftrack next to them ready to tow one of the guns. To the right is a Kfz. 12 all terrain car, hastily camouflaged with branches, and in the background can be seen a Pz.Kpfw III. Those are just three of the circa 2,300 tanks, armored vehicles, cars and trucks in a Panzer division (motor cycles not counted). The photo is probably from the summer of 1941, when the German Army was pushing forward along the Eastern Front. Battle losses and mechanical breakdowns reduced the number of available vehicles, but it was still a force to be reckoned with due to its mobility. That changed when the autumn rains began, and the dirt roads turned into endless stretches of deep mud…


Playing second fiddle

A machine gun crew of three soldiers taking it easy in the sun. Their weapon is an MG 13, a light machine gun that was adopted in 1930 and the standard LMG of the Reichswehr until 1935, when the MG 34 superseded it. It was based on the MG 18, and the designation “MG 13” was chosen as to make it appear to be an older design in the eyes of the Versailles Treaty Control Commission. When the MG 34 became the standard MG, the MG 13s were sold off to Spain and Portugal, and those that didn’t find buyers were put in storage. When the war began, second line units were equipped with it, and it saw use until the end of the war. It was also used in some aircraft and the PzKpfw I tank.

It weighed 10.9 kilos in the bipod configuration, and used 25-round box magazines, or 75-round saddle magazines. The small magazine capacity and the rate of fire of 500-600 rounds a minute meant that a magazine was emptied in 2.5 – 3 seconds. The magazines made it easy to use, though, and there were other comparable MGs that had similar magazine capacity, like the British Bren gun (30 rounds). In the photo, it’s seen with the long flash suppressor, but it was common to see the MG without it.

In the clip below, you can see how to fire it properly in short, controlled bursts. Still, it wasn’t able to supply the volume of fire that the MG 34 and later MG 42 could, which was the reason why it was replaced as a front line weapon.


Bottom of the barrel

A 10,5 cm schwere Kanone 18 has suffered an internal explosion, completely destroying the field gun. “But isn’t a gun supposed to be able to take an explosion? After all, the charge firing the grenade is pretty strong”, people might object. Yes, but there can be several reasons for a barrel getting destroyed like that. One is intentional destruction, “spiking the gun” in order to deny it to the enemy in case you have to abandon your position, but haven’t got the time or means to take the gun with you. There were even special charges for that (Sprengpatrone Z), made for different calibers. Another reason could be a worn barrel, but there were shot counters that were used to keep track on how many rounds had been fired so the barrel could be replaced in time. Still, a production flaw, like a miniscule crack or small impurity, could lead to a catastrophic failure. A third reason could be the grenade going off or getting stuck right after the charge has been ignited. While the gun breech can take the force of a blast, the barrel itself isn’t thick enough to withstand the force of an explosion. It could be really messy for the gun crew; if they were lucky, they got away with just the shock, but the blast and shrapnel could just as well maim or kill them. There’s no hint of the fate of the crew manning the gun in the photo. For their sake, I hope they survived to tell the tale in their letters home.

“Verdammt! Was nun?”

A narrow dirt road, a soft road shoulder, a 10,5-cm leichte Feldhaubitze 18 weighing some two tons ends up in the ditch. No way the 17 soldiers will get the howitzer back on its wheels and hitched to the limber again. They’ll have to wait for a half-tracked tractor to pull it right. The body language of the artillerymen tells that they realise that there isn’t much they can do. Or is it? We will never know how they got the gun back on the road. One or two of the men in the photo might still be alive. They’ve seen things ordinary people wouldn’t believe. Tanks on fire in the fields near Kursk. They’ve watched tracers glitter in the dark in the Korsun Pocket. All those moments will be lost in time, like snow in the spring. Too few are still alive.

Howitzer on ice

A serene scene, a column of 9.7 ton Sd.Kfz. 7 artillery tractors towing 15-cm schwere Feldhaubitze sFH 18 howitzers through a fir forest, the boughs laden with snow. One can almost hear the idling engines, muffled by the trees. But there’s a hidden danger… The sign warns of Glatteis – black ice – which the tracked vehicles don’t have any greater problem negotiating, but which the towed guns might have. Without snow chains, the hard rubber tires might skid if there’s a sharp turn, and 5.3 tons of hardware could end up in a ditch… What would that look like? See tomorrow’s post.

Target acquisition

Two second lieutenants practicing with a Maschinengewehr 34 light machine gun, the two junior officers having the dubious pleasure of lying down in the snow. The weapon isn’t loaded yet; the loader rests his arms on two ammo drum carriers, each holding a pair of drums with a 75-round belt each. The drums were used while assaulting, whereas an ammo can with 250 belted rounds was used for more sustained fire. The loader holds a pair of Zeiss 6×30 binoculars for observation of the target.

The development of the MG 34 began in 1930, as there was a need for a machine gun that was lighter than e.g. the MG 08/15. While named “MG 34”, the weapon wasn’t adopted by the Wehrmacht until January 1939. It was a multi-purpose MG, which could be used with the integral bipod in the light mode, or with a sturdy tripod in the heavy mode. There was also a tripod for anti-aircraft use, and it was the standard machine gun for the majority of the armored vehicles

The MG 34 weighed 12.1 kg with its bipod, with a fire rate of 900 rounds per minute, using the standard 7.92 x 57 mm rifle round. The practical rate of fire was 300-400 rounds per minute, as the barrel would get too hot otherwise. The barrel could be changed in seconds, though. The effective range of the weapon was 2,000 m, but in theory it could be used for indirect fire at up to 3,500 meters. Germany entered the war in 1939 with 84,078 MG 34, and it remained the principal MG until 1943.

The problem with the MG 34 was that it was too well made. In the harsh winters on the Eastern Front, the finely machined parts were susceptible to jamming if the temperature got too low. Dirt and mud were other causes of jamming. The production of the weapon used a lot of raw materials (49 kg), and it took 150 hours to make. The Army saw the need for an MG that was cheaper and easier to produce (using stamped metal parts), and with tolerances that allowed for greater reliability in battlefield conditions. The answer was the iconic MG 42, which used 27.5 kilos of raw materials and took 75 hours to produce. This increased the output from 3,000 MGs per month in the fall of 1941 to 24,000 MGs in early 1944.

The MG 42 is still used in many armies of the world, only marginally updated, while the MG 34 is found in museums. Well, perhaps not just museums… Next time you watch a Star Wars movie, you can see that the DLT-19 heavy blaster rifles used by the Imperial stormtroopers are modified MG 34s.

No lack of targets

The crew of a 10,5-cm leichte Feldhaubitze 18 (10.5 cm light field howitzer), Eastern Front, probably late winter, 1942. As I wrote in a previous post, the gun was primarily a howitzer, but it was also used as a stop-gap solution to the lack of anti-tank guns powerful enough to take on Soviet armor. The 7.5 cm PaK 40 AT gun was introduced later in 1942, and until then, the leFH 18 filled the role as best as it could.

On this day in 1941, the temperature on the Moscow front fell to −37° C (−31° F), further inhibiting the German advance. Weapons and vehicles didn’t work, supplies couldn’t be brought forward, and soldiers froze to death in their summer uniforms. In their arrogance, the planners of Operation Barbarossa thought that the campaign would be over before the advent of winter. They had underestimated the number of Red Army divisions, were unaware of the new, superior Soviet tanks, and calculated that the supply situation would be solved through living off the land. The latter meant that there were no food set aside for prisoners of war, and that soldiers had to plunder food from Soviet peasants, resulting in the starvation and death of hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens. When the gamble didn’t pay off, the Germans were stuck with a war they couldn’t win.