Threat from above

“Luftgefährdet – Verschwinde! – Tarne u[nd] Verdunkle” A warning sign, which roughly translates as “Danger from the air. Take cover! Camoflage and black out [headlights]”. The terrain around Shchigry, a town in Kursk Oblast, Russia, is mostly flat farmland with occasional gullies cut by streams, offering little cover from enemy aircraft. Shchigry is located between the Shchigra and Lesnaya Plata Rivers, 60 kilometers northeast of Kursk. During WW2, the town was occupied by German troops from 21 November 1941 to 5 February 1943. This photo of a Pionier squad resting by the roadside, some soldiers enjoying a smoke, was taken on 31 July, 1942. While the Germans enjoyed aerial superiority most of the time, Soviet attacks were a reality. Half a year later, the Soviet airforce had wrested the control of the skies from the Germans.

You’ve been warned

“Hier beginnt der Arsch der Welt!” “Here begins the ass end of the world!” The marshes and forests by the Volkhov River, east of Leningrad (Saint Petersburg) and north of Novgorod, wasn’t the first choice to fight in if you asked a German soldier. The sign was one that was rather frequently photographed, but the other side of it less so. There it says: “Gehst Du von hinnen denk an Götz von Berlichingen.” “If you go further, think of Götz von Berlichingen.” This is a reference to the 16th century mercenary captain Gottfried “Götz” von Berlichingen (1480-1562), known as “Götz of the Iron Hand” due to his prostethic hand after losing his right hand and forearm in 1504. His name became famous as an euphemism for a vulgar expression Er kann mich im Arsche lecken” – “He can lick my ass”, also known as “the Swabian greeting”.

The photo is from May, 1942, when the Volkhov area saw extensive fighting as German forces cut off and obliterated Red Army units in a salient created after a Soviet offensive in January 1942. The battles were savage and the terrain didn’t help. By the end of June, the Soviet pocket was wiped out and the frontline restored.

As for Götz von Berlichingen, there’s one more point of trivia. In October 1943, 17. SS-Freiwilligen Panzergrenadier-Division “Götz von Berlichingen” was formed. It was created from scratch, with the majority of its original cadre coming from replacement units and conscripts, many of whom were Romanian Germans and French volunteers. The division’s sign was a shield with an iron hand. It was a second-rate Waffen-SS division, lacking many of the vehicles that would’ve made it a proper Panzergrenadier division, as well as short on officers and NCOs. It saw its baptism of fire in Normandy in the days following D-Day, June 1944. The climactic battle in the third episode of the TV mini-series “Band of Brothers” sees a unit from the division clashing with US paratroopers in the Battle of Bloody Gulch, south of  Carentan.

Going where?

Sometime later in the war (1943 or later), an NCO looks out a train window. Is he going to or from the front? Is he on a two-week leave? There’s no way to tell.

Train travel was the most common mode of long-distance transport. Troops, supplies and materiel went thousands of kilometers all over Europe, and that made trains, bridges, railway hubs and marshalling yards prime targets for Allied bombers and fighter-bombers. Strafing attacks of trains destroyed many thousands of passenger and freight cars, as well as locomotives. The Allied pilots seldom had the opportunity to tell whether a train was transporting troops or civilians; if it didn’t display red cross markings, it was fair game. The attacks severely disrupted German troop movements and supply trains.

When I was a teenager, I worked together with a German, Günther, who was 15 years old when the war ended. He lived in the countryside north of Berlin, and one spring day in 1945, he was biking alongside a railway track some distance away. A train with freight cars with brabed wire across the small windows high up on the sides was chugging along, when a couple of Allied figther-bombers appeared. They began to shoot up the train. Günther threw himself in a ditch for cover, and saw hands stretched out of the openings, waving anything white. It seems like the train was carrying concentration camp prisoners. He didn’t stay around to check, and left as soon as the airplanes had run out of ammunition.

“Never get involved in a land war in Asia.”

A Zündapp KS750 motorcycle and sidecar combination makes its way through the slush and mud of a dismal Russian road, probably in late winter/early spring of 1943. The motorbike rider is interestingly enough wearing a Soviet tanker’s padded crash helmet, instead of the regular steel helmet. It provides better protection and more warmth than the helmet and “Oma”, the tube-shaped, knitted head covering issued with the winter uniform.

The road is marked with poles, which helped vehicles to stay on course in the deep snows and blizzards of winter. The horses and infantry further up the road probably enjoyed the road even less than the MC rider. The German way of warfare relied on good roads and short distances, which made the campaigns in Europe a success. In the USSR, the poor roads and great distances, combined with the harsh winters and mud seasons, made the German Army lose momentum.

A bridge too far away

A Soviet KV-1 tank is abandoned, stuck in the riverside mud of some river during the fighting in the summer of 1942. As the Soviet tanks were generally superior to the German Panzers at the time when it came to armor and armament, most of the losses were due to mechanical breakdown, lack of fuel, or, as in this case, getting bogged down. Another disadvantage was the lack of radios; in most cases, only the platoon commander’s tank was equipped with a radio, and that was set to reception only, not transmission. Tank commanders had to signal each others with flags, something that exposed them to enemy fire.

The KV-1 Model 1942 (called KV-1C by the Germans) featured a cast turret, thicker armor, and a new main gun. Still, most Soviet tanks had crews of four men, with the commander also acting as gunner, which meant that he had to split his attention between the battlefield and the acquisition of targets. The lack of a commander’s cupola made that task even harder. The Germans had five man crews, where the commander could concentrate on the overall situation through his cupola, while the gunner kept track on targets. As all German tanks had two-way radios, they could coordinate much better than the Soviets, partly overcoming shortcomings in armor and armament. With the introduction of the PzKpfw IV Ausf F2/G in the spring of 1942, the Germans had a tank that could match the Soviet armor.


Thanks to Daniel Löwenhamn for correction and additional information.

Signs of the time

At a road crossing near Bolkhov in Russia stands a Schilderbaum, a “sign tree”. Obscure signs with symbols, numbers and abbreviations point to the left or the right. I had to check the photo with a magnifying glass, and a couple of signs give a hint about the time. One shows the symbol of the 3. Panzer-Division as used in the summer of 1943, and the other that of the 17. Panzer-Division. Both were in the area for the Battle of Kursk, which dates the photo to June or July, 1943. Another sign shows the field post number of Field Bakery Company 665, a slightly less well-known unit. At least they had fresh bread.

Scout camp (WW2 style)

Officers and soldiers of the Stabskompanie – headquarters company – of the 12. Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung (armored reconnaisance battalion), 12. Panzer-Division enjoying a game of cards in a forest, probably outside Orel, Russia, summer of 1943. The recon unit was responsible for scouting ahead of the main units, using armored cars and gathering intelligence. The division spent most of the year there, participating in the Battle of Kursk in July. By the end of the year, it transferred to Army Group North, where it eventually became trapped in the Courland Pocket, surrendering in May, 1945.

This photo has just a name scribbled on the back, but the license plate of the car to the left is legible (WH 430495), and an identification request on the Axis History Forum resulted in a reply where the vehicle’s unit was identified. There are many ways of researching photos, unit symbols, field post numbers, and license plates being useful identifiers.