A pioneer that went a long way

The first time I saw the photos posted here, I thought that the caption might be wrong. A Renault FT tank in Russia 1942? Shouldn’t that be France in 1940? Then I read about the tank and the armies which used it, and things became clearer, even though a mystery still remained.

The small Renault FT tank debuted on the battlefield in 1918, armed with either a short 37 mm cannon or an 8 mm machinegun. The crew consisted of a driver and a commander, the latter also acting as gunner. While it might not look that impressive, its design nonetheless set the standard for tanks for a century and counting. It was sold to several countries, and saw use in conflicts between the world wars, and also during WW2 and beyond. In the East, Renault FTs were used by Poland, Lithuania, and the USSR. The Germans captured several hundred tanks in the Battle of France in 1940, but they were mostly used in the occupied countries in western Europe.

The camouflage paintjob could be Polish. The tank might be one captured from the Poles, either in the Polish-Soviet war of 1919-21, or in 1939. The Red Army didn’t use them in WW2. Anyway, for some reason it ended up far away from the Renault factory in France, but not as far as some of the tanks captured in 1921. Eight of them were given to Afghanistan, where they were decommissioned in the 1950s. What happened to the tank in the photos, then? We don’t know, but if it was still in working condition, it might have been used for rear area security.
renault_ft2In this view, it is apparent that the tail skid that was intended to make crossing trenches easier has been damaged in some way, as it isn’t attached to the upper fastening point.

Here’s a video for those of you who want to know more about the Renault FT.

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In for a humpy ride

A German soldier has a snug seat between the humps of a Bactrian camel. The place is probably southern Russia, north of the Caucasus Mountains, and the time is 1942 or 1943. I can imagine that few soldiers pictured themselves riding camels one day when they crossed the Soviet border. The push in the southeast was a bid to capture the oil fields at Baku, and thus secure the supply of oil and gas for the fuel-starved Wehrmacht. The Battle for Stalingrad was part of the greater plan, and the failure to capture the city and secure the flank meant that the German positions in the Caucasus region became precarious. The Germans had to retreat.

The man on the hay wagon is probably a Hiwi, a Soviet volunteer who accepted to serve as an auxiliary instead of facing the much darker prospects in a prisoner of war camp. The camels didn’t have much of a say at all.

On this day in 1942…

Obergefreiter Ignaz Mittermayer from Viechtwang in Austria was killed. This death card is one of the few things that reminds us that he lived at all. The surname might be spelled wrong on the card, which made it harder to find his file on Volksbund, where it’s spelled “Mittermayr” (or the Volksbund might be in error, as can be the case on occasion). He was born on 27 January 1917, and was probably conscripted into the Army in 1938, shortly after Austria was added to the Greater German Reich. He served in Infanterie-Regiment 135 in the 45. Infanterie-Division, one of several purely Austrian divisions in the Wehrmacht. He was probably a participant in the occupation of Moravia (in Czechoslovakia) in 1939, and then in the invasion of Poland later that year. In 1940, the Division took part in the Battle of France. Like so many other divisions, it was then deployed on the eastern border for the invasion of the USSR in 1941. A year and six days after crossing the border, Ignaz Mittermayer was dead. He had survived the harsh winter of 1941-42, and had received the Infantry Assault Badge, which was awarded for participation in three assaults on three different days.

Googling his name caused some confusion, though. One hit turned up the book “Als der Osten brannte” by Henning Stüring (2011), which lists an Obergefreiter Ignaz Mittermayer, who was born in 1917 and a soldier in the 45. Infanterie-Division, as killed in action a year earlier on 22 June 1941. A check with Volksbund cleared things up – his name was Ignaz Mittermaier, and happened to be a guy born the same year, with almost the same name, and of the same rank. This just proves that in all research, it’s important to check things like birth dates in order to confirm the identity of persons.

Still, the date of his death differs between the card and the official record; the card says 29 June, the record says the 28th. There might’ve been some confusion at the time, but I go with the official record. Ignaz was probably buried close to where he fell, which was Bukhtiyarovo, a tiny village in Orel oblast, Russia. Any grave marker might have been destroyed when the Red Army liberated the area; it was common that German graves were desecrated, crosses kicked over and burned. That’s why his remains haven’t been recovered and put to rest at the German war cemetery at Kursk-Besedino. His name can be found in the memorial book there, though.

He was pushing his luck, anyway. The Division was wiped out in June 1944, and had to be rebuilt as the 45. Grenadier-Division. By the end of the war, what was left of it went into Soviet captivity. Service on the Eastern Front was harsh.

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The poem on his card translates as: “In lands far away I have to die, in foreign earth my grave I found, but my soul moved to the homeland, to the heavens of the Fatherland. So live well, you all beloved, and do not weep. Oh, comfort yourself, in just a little, little time, we’ll see each other in the Kingdom of heaven.” On the back, the text says: “Jesus, my God, I love you above everything.”

Death cards

This isn’t a photo as such, but a card given to family members and other attendees at the funeral (or funeral service) of a soldier killed in battle. Giving away Sterbebilder (“death cards”) as mementos of the deceased is an old tradition, mainly in the Catholic parts of Germany and in Austria, and one that has continued to this day. It isn’t a military tradition as such, but as there were millions of Wehrmacht soldiers killed during WW2, there are countless cards with soldiers around, and they are a special interest for some collectors. They measure about 65 x 105 mm, and can be a single page or two (130 x 105 mm unfolded).

The card above was part of a lot of five cards I bought off eBay for 15 Euros. As the cards don’t mention the units the deceased belonged to or where they fell (except in very general terms; I guess the reason for that was operational secrecy), they present a puzzle to anyone trying to research them. Of the five cards I got, I’m fairly certain that I’ve managed to identify the unit of the young soldier above. Further research might help me figure out the units of the other four.

I made a search on Volksbund, the German war graves commission, where soldiers killed or missing during WW1 and WW2 are listed. Looking for “Michael Riedler” drew a blank, so I entered his first name, place of birth, and month and year of his death. This is what I found:

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It appears like Volksbund got his surname wrong, which is known to happen sometimes due to the amount of records handled. Anyway, the place of death was listed as “Sanko. 1/82” in Nikolskoje. There are dozens of places named “Nikolskoje” (or rather “Nikolskoye”) in Russia and the states of the former Soviet Union, so that wasn’t any help. There wasn’t any location of his grave listed, so the next best thing was to identify the field hospital where he died. I went to Lexikon der Wehrmacht and looked up Sanitätskompanien (field hospital units), abbreviated “Sanko”, and found Sanitätskompanie 82. It was part of the 2. Panzer-Division. Looking up the Division in question, I noticed that the Panzergrenadier-Regiment 304 had been formed from the Schützen-Regiment 304, which had been raised in Wehrkreis XVII in 1940. That military district was one of two in Austria, and the one were Ridler’s place of birth was located. Bingo!

In July, the 2. Panzer-Division took part in Operation Citadel. Also known as “the Battle of Kursk” or “the Battle of Prochorovka”, the battle was a strategic loss for the Germans. They went on the defensive, and the Division fought off attacks in the Orel – Bryansk area, and from 8 August in the vicinity of Yelnya. It was probably here that Michael Riedler was mortally wounded, leading to his death in the field hospital. Due to the heavy fighting in the area, there was probably little time to bury him properly, which is why there’s no known location of his grave.

His card reads (with somewhat gnarly syntax):

riedlerobitThere follows a verse: “I have to die far from my home, the enemy’s bullet brought death to me, I fell in the midst of my comrades and moved with them to the dear God. Dear parents and siblings do not weep, comfort yourself in your deep hurt. It will only be a little while before I see you all again.” Under his photo, there’s another poem: “Mother, dry your tears! When the cold ore struck me, my last thoughts were with you. Do not break, do not break, mother-heart! Grant me the death of the hero, wear as heroine your pain! One could call you more beautiful! Do not break, do not break, mother-heart!”
riedler1
On the front and back, the card says: “His faith was called Germany!”, and “Death is conquered in victory”.

The verses and quotes sums up the hero worship and cultish admiration of death so often seen in Nazi thinking, mixed with German sentimentality. Michael Riedler was one of millions of soldiers who didn’t return to his family, and this is one of the few memories he left behind.

The last hours in Africa

A group of Luftwaffe soldiers pose before the camera as they are about to go back to Europe. This could be in 1942 or early 1943, before the collapse of the German Forces in North Africa. Some of the soldiers wear pith helmets, the tropical helmets associated with troops in warmer climes. The kneeling guy on the left keeps his rifle in a cloth bag, which protects it from sand and dust. Most of them wear dark brown greatcoats, indicating that the photo might have been taken early in the morning before the temperature rose. How will they go back? Neither transport by air, nor by ship was safe. The Allied forces harried the German transport routes, which was one of the reasons why the Germans were beaten in North Africa; troops, supplies and fuel were lost to Allied attack aircraft, submarines, torpedo boats, and so on. Crossing from Tunisia via Sicily to the Italian mainland was the shortest route, and the fact that the soldier who mounted that photo in his album could write the caption tells us that he and his friends made it.

The destruction of Dortmund

The Hansaplatz in Dortmund, 10 May, 1943. Some of the city’s more than 530,000 inhabitants walk past the ruins after the British bombing raid during the night of 4-5 May. The arcade with its shops and cafés lining one side of the square is in ruins, and the 14th century Probsteikirche behind it has met the same fate. Dortmund, an industrial and administrative center in the Ruhr area in western Germany, was a prime target for the Royal Air Force, beginning with a couple of raids in April, 1942. The attack in May 1943, coupled with another attack 19 nights later, claimed the lives of some 1,400 people and made more than a quarter of the population homeless. The final attack took place on 12 March 1945, when 1,108 RAF aircraft dropped 4,851 tons of bombs on Dortmund, the heaviest single bombing of any European city in WW2.

It was the RAF that flew most of the bombing missions against the about 260 German cities and towns that had been targeted for destruction. The British leadership under Air Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris (a man who would’ve ended up accused of war crimes if he had been in another uniform) thought, largely erroneously, that the war production would cease and the will of the German people would be broken by heavy area bombing of industrial and residential areas. Part of it was revenge for the Luftwaffe attacks on British cities, and the destruction of Hamburg and Dresden alone were enough to get even when it came to the death count. Poor precision (in many cases, the raids completely failed to hit the intended targets) and the dehousing strategy called for area bombing, most of it conducted at night. One tactic deployed was to drop incendiary bombs mixed with high explosive bombs with time fuses. When the rescue workers and fire-fighters were out, trying to put out the fires and helping people trapped in the ruins, the HE bombs went off, killing the rescue personnel.

A Luftwaffe officer can be seen in the photo. His boss, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, claimed in a speech to his Luftwaffe in September 1939 that “No enemy bomber can reach the Ruhr. If one reaches the Ruhr, my name is not Göring. You can call me Meyer.” The Luftwaffe had a cap that the pilots and other personnel came to call the “Hermann Meyer cap” in a sarcastic nod to his boast…

When American troops captured Dortmund on 13 April 1945, 98 % of the city center was in ruins after 106 bomb raids, the final raid making Dortmund the most heavily bombed city in Germany. Few of Dortmund’s historical buildings were rebuilt, and the neo-gothic arcade in the photo was replaced with an ugly, functionalist counterpart. The Probsteikirche was restored, but the face of Dortmund had been changed forever. Thanks to extensive construction of air raid shelters, the number of killed was relatively low at 6,341 people in total. A further 15,520 Dortmund men who served in the Wehrmacht never returned home. About 5,000 Jews, gypsies, and other “undesirables” had been deported to concentration camps in the east, and it can be surmised that very few of them survived.

Unexploded bombs are still found buried in the ground in German cities, and Dortmund is no exception. In November 2013, a 1.8 ton British bomb was found, and 20,000 people had to be evacuated while experts defused and removed it. The war is still present, and the last victims of the bombs haven’t been claimed yet.

A-hunting we go

Taking a break, an Obergefreiter, a Gefreiter, and a Frettchen (ferret) pose for the camera. Armed with shotguns, the soldiers will hunt for rabbits, the ferret… well, ferreting out the rabbits from their warrens. Ferrets have been used for hunting since ancient times, their sleek build ideal for going down tunnels and driving out rabbits, rats and other rodents. Another photo shows the hunters with a dozen rabbits, so the ferret did a good job. Rabbit meat was an important part of the diet all over Europe during WW2, as meat from larger animals was rationed. Many families bred rabbits for food, keeping them in hutches in the back yard. Butchers kept the feet on the otherwise skinned rabbits, proving that they actually were rabbits and not cats. In wartime Europe, you couldn’t be picky about what meat you got…