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 little answers…
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.
Some photos can be puzzling. I looked at it and thought “What the hell is that?” Well, for starters, it isn’t a blunderbuss, but a Canon d’Infanterie de 37 modèle 1916 TRP. The flared muzzle is a flash suppressor on the rapid-firing 37 mm infantry support gun. Originally a French weapon, it was used by the US Army in World War 1 as well as some other nations, and saw use by both the French and the Germans during WW2. At a weight of 108 kilos, it wasn’t that mobile. It was crewed by two soldiers, gunner and loader. When loaded on a limber, it could be pulled by a horse. Anyway, one of the more obscure weapons, which was identified by the knowledgeable Mr Yan Taylor on Axis History Forum.
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.
One of the most well-known guns of WW2 was the 8.8 cm Flak 36 anti-aircraft gun, often referred to as the “Eighty-eight” or German “Acht-acht“. It had its origins in World War 1, but the versions that saw action during WW2 were developed in the 1920’s and 30’s. During the Spanish Civil War, it was discovered that the gun was very effective against vehicles, tanks and other ground targets.
It was mobile, but required an Sd.Kfz.7 half-track tractor to pull it. It could fire a 9.4 kilo grenade to an altitude of 9900 meters, posing a serious threat to Allied bombers. Used as an anti-tank gun, it could knock out most tanks at a range of up to 2 kilometers. The 8.8 cm gun was also the basis for the main gun of the Tiger tank, one of the most feared tanks of WW2.
In the photo, eight of the 11-man crew are visible. Flak batteries were operated by the Luftwaffe, and the stationary batteries defending German cities were often crewed by boys aged 15-16 years old. One of many ironies of the war was that many of the crews serving these powerful guns weren’t old enough to buy a beer.
A big pile of captured French firearms and other equipment has been collected in the back of a truck. Jumbled together are Lebel and Berthier rifles, M1886 bayonets, ammunition pouches and an Adrian helmet. The German practice of using captured weapons, Beutewaffen, was extended to French weapons, too. Some of the rifles were issued to occupation troops in France, others to anti-partisan and security units in Eastern Europe. In a stroke of irony, some were even used in the defense of Berlin in 1945.
Young artillerymen training with a 7,5 cm leichtes Infanteriegeschütz 18 (7,5 cm le.IG 18), autumn of 1936. This light artillery piece was introduced in 1932, intended to provide artillery support on regimental level. It was crewed by five, and could fire a 6 kg grenade up to 3.5 kilometers.
The uniforms of the gun crew are a bit of an enigma. They look like police uniforms, with their dark, two-button cuffs and many front buttons. The boots seems to be police issue, too. The Army-style national eagle over the breast pocket wasn’t a feature on police uniforms, even if there were exceptions. The M1918 Stahlhelm doesn’t add to the mystery, though, as the newly introduced M35 helmet hadn’t been produced in sufficient numbers by then.
This is one of those photos that raises more questions than it answers. Were they issued police uniforms because of shortages due to the rapid expansion of the Wehrmacht that began in 1935? This is what makes researching even a rather trivial photo an interesting challenge.