Into the great wide open

A column of Panzerkampfwagen IV tanks make its way across a featureless Soviet landscape. The dusty road is rutted by the passing of numerous cars and tanks. This photo is probably from 1941 or the early summer of 1942, and the vehicle on the left could be a Horch all-terrain car with a 2 cm anti-aircraft gun, towing an ammunition trailer. The markings appear to be those of Beobachtungs-Abteilung 27 (right side of trailer), combined with the symbol of Panzergruppe 3 (the “Hh”-like symbol) and the H-in-a-circle for an independent army unit. This poses a bit of a problem, though, as records show that Beo.Abt.27 was assigned to the 17th Army in 1941. Something doesn’t add up, but then the records are incomplete for many units during the war.

The Beobachtungs-Abteilung 27 was one of 40 artillery observation battalions, which used several means of locating enemy artillery for counter-battery fire, like observation of muzzle flashes and gun sound, and from balloons. They initially had an anti-aircraft platoon, which was removed after 1942. The battalion was transferred to the West in 1944, and surrendered to the Allies in the Netherlands in May 1945.

The problem with properly identifying the unit puzzled several of the members of an Eastern Front-themed FaceBook group. As many of them are very knowledgeable and accomplished researchers and authors, I’ll have to be content with that we might never know the exact circumstances regarding that photo. As it had been mounted in an album, it’s a prime example of what happens when a photo is removed from its context.

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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.

Operation Zitadelle

Sturmgeschütz III self-propelled gun rumbles past an Sd.Kfz. 252 halftrack ammunition resupply vehicle, most likely in the summer of 1943, prior to the Battle of Kursk. The StuG is probably belonging to an independent self-propelled artillery battalion, while the half-track tows an ammunition trailer with the sign of the 19. Panzer-Division (two vertical bars, introduced in 1943).

The 19. Panzer-Division was formed from the 19. Infanterie-Division in November 1940. It saw action on the Eastern Front from 1941 to 1945. It took part in the battles of Moscow in 1941 and Kursk in 1943, and in the crushing of the Warsaw uprising in 1944. When the Red Army launched Operation Bagration in the summer of 1944, the 19. Panzer-Division was in the Netherlands for rest and refit, thus escaping potential annihilation in the destruction of Army Group Center. It was engaged in defensive battles until its surrender to Soviet forces in Czechoslovakia in May 1945.

Codenamed “Operation Zitadelle” by the Germans, the Battle of Kursk is considered the biggest tank battles ever. A total of some 8,000 tanks and 1.7 million men clashed, beginning on 5 July, 1943. The Soviets had the advantage, both in numbers and defensive positions; the German build-up had been rather slow, and the Red Army had had ample time to shift troops and build defensive positions prior to the attack. The Germans had hoped to encircle Soviet troops in the Kursk salient and thus weakening the Red Army, but success failed to materialize. Instead, the initiative passed to the Soviets, and from then on the Wehrmacht was unable to regain it.

Wheels of Error (or: the Hassel Hustle)

A Panzerkampfwagen IV, probably an Ausf. E or F1, the crew getting some air. Their packs are stacked on the turret roof, which might indicate the absence of a storage bin on the back of the turret. Now, if I were to claim that the crew members were some of the characters in the late author Sven Hassel’s war novels, there would be some who would believe that.

Many of us with an interest in World War 2 (especially the German side) have read a Sven Hassel novel or three (or all 14). For some, it opened up the world of real memoirs, and for others they are a guilty pleasure, but some believe they are relating Hassel’s real war experience – or at least some of it. Well, they are dead wrong.

Who was Sven Hassel? It was the pen name of Danish author Børge Willy Redsted Pedersen, also known as Børge Willy Redsted Arbing, Børge Arbing, Willy Arbing, and (finally) Sven Willy Hasse Arbing (yes, no “l” in “Hasse”). He was born on this day in 1917, and died on 21 September 2012 in Barcelona, where he had lived since 1964. According to his own claims, he had moved to Germany in the 1930’s in search of a job, enlisted in the German Army, and served in the 6. Panzer-Division. After the war, he served a prison sentence for having been in the Wehrmacht. In 1953, his supposedly autobiographical novel “Legion of the Damned” was published in Danish, an English translation following in 1957. It made quite an impression, and won critical acclaim in several reviews. More books followed, like “Wheels of Terror”, “March Battalion”, Liquidate Paris”, etc, totaling 14 published novels translated to 15 languages and selling 53 million copies (and counting; new editions are published 65 years after the first book). If it’s successful, it must be true, right?

I must admit that I gobbled up Hassel’s books when I was in my late teens/early 20s. The drama, the action, the grim images from the many battles made the books page-turners. They are quite funny in places, too. The cast of characters is colorful: “Tiny”, the Legionnaire, “the Old man”, Heide, and not least Porta. They have all ended up in the 27th Penal Panzer Regiment, and see action on all fronts except North Africa. There’s just one teensy problem: it’s all made up.

To the casual reader, the force of the narrative, especially in “Legion of the Damned”, and the seemingly precise mention of military units and weapons, seems convincing. It is when one begins to look Hassel’s horse in the mouth that it all unravels. Several years ago, I revisited “Legion of the Damned” (published in Sweden in 1968 as “De fördömdas legion”), and took extensive notes, checking almost every fact and claim, noting dates, locations, etc. The book is the most interesting to check, as it is claimed to be Hassel’s “truest” book. One has to remember that when it was originally published in 1953, there were no unit histories and similar resources available to aid the memory of veterans. That being said, almost all references to other units don’t hold water – they are in other army groups, on other fronts, or entirely fictional. The 27th Penal Panzer Regiment is hogwash, of course, but the Feldpost number Hassel refers to a couple of times was used by one of the companies in the Panzer-Regiment 11, 6. Panzer-Division (which he claims to have served in originally), and many locations and times where the “27th” fights correspond to those of the 6. PzDiv.

I wouldn’t completely rule out the possibility that Hassel actually served on the Eastern Front, but hardly in a tank – his descriptions of the tanks (flamethrowers, 105 mm-gunned Panthers, and so on) are often pure fantasy. My list of errors and exaggerations grew as I read the book. Many events are jumbled, occurring after an event described in a following chapter, and some are just unlikely, like his involvement in the 20 July plot (meeting Rommel) or him meeting Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest. So, “Legion of the Damned” is a mix of fantasy and some events that might be true, perhaps even experienced by Hassel himself if one is very charitable. Just don’t believe it.

What about the rest of his books? This is were it all starts to fall apart big time. Sven and his friends must have been cloned. They sure needed to… According to “Legion of the Damned”, Sven was wounded in the battle of Kiev in November 1943, and was a convalescent in a military hospital for a while. At about the same time, he was fighting in Italy (“Monte Cassino”, autumn – winter 1943-44), but busy as always, Sven & Co were also in Berlin and northern Finland (“Court Martial”, autumn – winter 1943-44), and simultaneously involved in actions leading up to the battle of Cherkassy (“Wheels of Terror”, taking place in late autumn – winter 1943-44). Small wonder the stories are so action-packed, with Sven and friends zooming around on several fronts. Another blatant example is when he is both in and outside of Stalingrad; see “SS General” and “March Battalion”, respectively. Anyone still believe that the books are true?

Sven Hassel got into a controversy in 1963 when a Danish journalist made the claim that he hadn’t served at all, but was just a simple thief and informant for the German occupation authorities during WW2, and who had been sentenced to ten years in prison for treason. A Danish author, Erik Haaest, spent years campaigning against Hassel, building on the 1963 revelation. There are no service records to back Hassel’s claims, and there appears to have been at least five people involved in the writing of his books (Georg Gjedde touched up and edited Hassel’s script for “Legion of the Damned”, and Hassel’s wife is thought to have been involved, too).

If anyone still wants to read his books, then by all means do so. Better yet, spend your money and time on better books, which lets you share the experiences of people who actually were there.

 

PS: Despite the success of the books, only one of them has been made into a movie, and then only sharing the title and cast of characters. “Wheels of Terror” (AKA “The Misfit Brigade”) is a 1987 adaptation that didn’t do well in the theaters, to put it mildly..

 

Lost in France

Roubaix, France, late May or June, 1940. A knocked out Infantry Tank Mk.I rests in the ruins of a house, a German soldier taking a look at the wreck. The photo is captioned “Volltreffer in Roubaix” (“Direct hit in Roubaix”). The Infantry Tank Mk.I is often referred to in post-war literature as the “Matilda I”, even if there’s scant evidence that the name was used before 1941. The “Matilda II” was a quite different tank, and not an improved version of the Infantry Tank Mk.I.

The British developed the infantry tank concept after World War 1. “Cruiser” tanks were supposed to be fast and capable to take on similar enemy tanks, while infantry tanks were intended to move at a slow pace, providing machinegun support for advancing infantry. They had heavier armor, but were armed with machineguns. The Infantry Tank Mk.I was an 11-ton, 2-man light tank armed with a 7.7 or 12.7 mm machinegun, with a top speed of 13 km/h. By 1940, the concept proved to be flawed, and those of the 140 tanks produced that weren’t lost in France were withdrawn from frontline use and used for training instead.

The town of Roubaix lies in northern France on the border to Belgium, just north-east of Lille. In May 1940, the area was held by the British 4th Division, and protected by the so called “Gort Line”, a series of bunkers, pillboxes and anti-tank ditches built during the “Phoney War”. When the Germans attacked Belgium, the Netherlands and France on 10 May 1940, the rapid advance forced the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to retreat. On the night of 27/28 May, the 4th Division vacated Lille and withdrew towards Dunkirk, leaving the defense to French troops.

It’s hard to find details on the fighting in or around Roubaix, not even what unit which was there with the Matilda tanks, but they were probably from the Royal Tank Regiment. The 4th and 7th Battalion RTR formed the 1st Tank Brigade, which was equipped with Matilda tanks, and part of the BEF. There were also tanks assigned to the various infantry divisions, supposedly from the 1st Tank Brigade. Only two Matildas made it to Dunkirk, where they were blown up by their crews. The Germans, who often adopted captured enemy tanks, didn’t use the Matilda I. Just two complete tanks are what’s left of the 140 that were built.

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…

End of the road

The Battle of France is over, and a German recovery crew inspects a broken-down Renault Char B1 bis. They travel the French countryside in a captured Chenillette, marked with German crosses. The place is near Sacy le Petit, about 50 km north-north-east of Paris. Will the tank be repaired and pressed into German service, or will it be scrapped, the turret used in the defenses along the Channel coast?

When I got this photo, I looked for a name on the tank, as the crews named their tanks. Sure enough, on the front glacis there’s “BUGEAUD”, the name of a French field marshal in the Napoleonic wars. Going to the excellent Chars-Francais website, it was a breeze finding the story behind the fate of this particular tank.

The tank was numbered 534, serving in the 3rd company of the 28e BCC (28th Battle Tank Battalion). “Bugeaud” was crewed by:

Commander: Aspirant Maingard
Driver: Caporal-chef Collet
Assistant driver: Caporal Paul Trompette
Radioman: Caporal Sturbeaux
Mechanic: Chasseur Trémini

“Bugeaud” was involved in the battles north of the river Oise, 8-13 June, 1940. The reconstituted French 1st Armored Division faces German forces. The Germans appear to be everywhere, and the tanks are ordered to help the infantry withdraw. Aspirant Maingard spots a dozen German tanks and fires on them. The 47 mm gun jams, and the tank withdraws from the action. His CO, lieutenant Pavillon, congratulates Maingard and tells him to have a drink at the local bistro to calm his nerves. The gun repaired, “Bugeaud” is engaged in a second battle that day, and the unit manages to knock out or immobilize ten German tanks. This buys the French a short reprieve, but the units in the area lack support, and it is decided that they should withdraw. The next day, 9 June, “Bugeaud” takes an R 35 tank in tow. They come as far as Sacy-le-Petit when “Bugeaud” breaks down and her crew is forced to abandon the tank.

What became of the crew? They were probably taken prisoners of war and spent the next five years in Germany, unless they managed to join the Free French Forces. As for the tank, its further fate is unknown.