“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.

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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.

Across the Dnieper

The summer of 1941, the Soviet Union. An SdKfz 10 towing a PaK 36 anti-tank gun crosses the wide Dnieper river on a pontoon bridge built by an engineer unit. The registration plate on the halftrack marks the vehicle as belonging to the Waffen-SS, which, because of the location, would make it belong to either SS-Division (mot) “Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler” (LAH) or SS-Division “Wiking”. The former was Hitler’s “life guard” unit, first among equals, while the latter was made up from “Germanic” volunteers from the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Denmark and other countries occupied by Nazi Germany.

Six Waffen-SS divisions participated in Operation Barbarossa: LAH, Das Reich, Totenkopf, Polizei, Wiking, and Nord. As the war progressed, a further 32 divisions were established, but many were understrength and/or of questionable quality. Several were used for anti-partisan warfare, where they committed war crimes. Even the “elite” formations were involved in war crimes, with the possible exception for Nord. Some of the “ethnic” double-digit divisions acquitted themselves well, but in general they were far from the elite formations some think was the norm for the entire Waffen-SS. They were part of the Nazi idea of a pan-European army fighting against Communism, but the vision of an Aryan elite clashed with reality. Some of the units, most notably Dirlewanger and the Kaminski Brigade, were little more than armed rabble and criminals.

Still, when the best divisions were in the frontline, there were few other formations that could rival them. The fighting spirit displayed made them feared and respected adversaries, but the taint of their war crimes and involvement in crimes against humanity tarnishes their memory.

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.

A blast in the night

A 10,5-cm leichte Feldhaubitze 18 (10.5 cm light field howitzer) at maximum elevation fires off a round in the night. The gun was developed in 1928-29 by the arms manufacturer Rheinmetall, and adopted by the Wehrmacht in 1935. It could be towed by artillery tractors or horse teams. It could fire 6-8 shots a minute, the maximum range being a little over 10 kilometers. The Army had 4,862 leFH 18 when the war began. It was the standard divisional field howitzer. There were a total of 1,023 horse-drawn light field artillery battalions in the Wehrmacht and 62 motorized light artillery battalions in the Panzer and Panzergrenadier divisions, as well as GHQ artillery. The leFH 18 had a superior caliber compared to its opponents early in the war and performed well as the supporting arm of the panzer divisions.

While not ideally suited to it, the howitzer could in the right circumstances be effective in anti-tank combat, particularly in the North African Campaign where the motorized batteries of Artillerie-Regiment (mot.) 33 of the 15. Panzer-Division played an important role in defeating British armored units at Sidi Rezegh on 23 November 1941. On the Eastern Front, the light field howitzers were less successful in the anti-tank role, but served as a stop-gap solution until better anti-tank guns became available.