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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Off to an uncertain fate

A long column of Soviet prisoners of war march to the rear in the hot summer weather of 1941. They have surrendered to the 10. Panzer-Division, and don’t know what fate they’ll meet when handed over to security units in the rear. The Wehrmacht treated the Soviet PoWs like the subhumans the Nazis regarded them as. The death rate was horrible, and was the result of part a murderous ideology, part insufficient logistics as the Germans weren’t prepared to deal with hundreds of thousands of prisoners.

The war on the Eastern Front took on a brutal character from the very beginning. Both sides committed massacres and killed prisoners. The ideological aspect aggravated it, as Nazism and Communism were competing for domination. Nazi Germany was worse by a few degrees, as it had a genocidal streak, but the USSR wasn’t exactly a shining example of humanism, either. The purges and terror against its own people began under Lenin, and Stalin cranked it up even more. Couple that with a tendency to view soldiers as a faceless resource, where millions of them were wasted because of orders not to retreat despite hopeless situations, and one can understand why the Eastern Front was such a horrible place. Hitler wasted the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, too, with “no retreat” orders. Add to this the plight of the civilian Soviet citizens and the Jews, and the result is the bloodiest war in history. Let’s hope it stays that.

A brief skirmish

Somewhere on the Western Front, May or June 1940. A column of German vehicles stands to the side of a road, while a couple of Panzerkampfwagen I Ausf.B sit in the field to the left. A house goes up in flames, perhaps a knocked out point of resistance for a group of enemy soldiers. Judging by the soldiers standing unconcerned in the middle of the road, the fighting has moved on. Forward elements are up ahead, securing the road for continued advance.

When we think of war and battles, we tend to think of big clashes and intense fighting. In many cases it was more like this – skirmishes, temporary halts while units to the side or up ahead engage the enemy, passing signs of combat like burning buildings, wrecked vehicles, the bodies of friends and foes. I’ve read accounts by soldiers who didn’t fire their weapons for months. As a soldier, the overall situation can be confusing, your knowledge restricted to what you can see and whatever the officers tell you. That’s why I found a posthumous memoir by a German soldier, “Eastern Inferno” by Hans Roth, a bit suspicious. It’s an intense account, and many details check out, but his grasp on the overall strategic situation hints at later editing or additions by the editor. If he had been a staff officer, then his knowledge of the identity of adjacent units and their objectives would’ve been logical, but hardly as a man in the ranks. It differed noticeably from the 30 or so memoirs by veterans I’ve read. In short, it’s a bit too good to be true.

Someone said that war is “months of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror”. For the men at the forefront of a campaigning army, the spells of boredom were shorter, but combat could still be very much a case of “hurry up and wait”. In mobile warfare, you seldom know what’s behind the corner or the next bend of the road, and that goes for the men in the photo above.

Operation Barbarossa, day 3

Men and vehicles of the 35. Infanterie-Division advance eastwards on 24 June 1941, on the third day of the invasion of the Soviet Union. They move through the part of Poland that was occupied by the USSR in 1939, when Hitler and Stalin divided the country between them. The Division is heading towards Bialystok, where it will take part in the capture of the city three days later.

The 35. Infanterie-Division was raised in Karlsruhe on 1 October 1936, as part of the remilitarization of Germany. It was kept on the western border during the first months of the war, and got its baptism of fire in May 1940, when it broke through the fortifications in the Dutch-Belgian border area. It was kept in reserve for the second part of the campaign, and was later stationed on the Belgian coast, slated for participation in an eventual invasion of Britain. In April 1941, it was moved to the German-Soviet border in preparation for operation Barbarossa.

After the capture of Bialystok, it advanced with the rest of the 9th Army towards Smolensk, where it suffered heavy losses in a Soviet counterattack near the small town Dukhovshchina (northeast of Smolensk). The Division was part of Operation Typhoon, the advance on Moscow, but worsening weather and the Red Army counteroffensive saw it retreat to the area of Gzhatsk (renamed in 1968 as Gagarin), where it remained for all of 1942. 1943 and 1944 were spent in defensive battles, and when the Soviet offensive on the second anniversary of Operation Barbarossa hit the German frontlines, the 35. Infanterie-Division had to be pulled back for rest and refit after having had to break out of the Bobruisk encirclement.

More defensive battles ensued, and from mid-January 1945, the Division defended German soil in West Prussia. Part of the Division was evacuated west to Schleswig-Holstein, while the rest went into Soviet captivity.

Unternehmen Barbarossa

“Düsseldorf”. That was the code word that Operation Barbarossa was to commence on 22 June 1941, 77 years ago on this day. The photo above is from about two months later, when spearhead units from Panzergruppe 2 crossed the river Desna near the village of Slabyn in Ukraine. The vehicles in the photo might belong to the 17. Panzer-Division. It’s possible that it’s Slabyn going up in smoke in the background as the German vehicles make their way along the corduroy road laid across the marshy ground. The German invasion was a serious threat to the Soviet Union, but the further the German forces advanced, the longer the supply lines became, and two months of combat began to tell on men and materiel. Vehicles were getting worn, losses in officers and men had to be replaced with inexperienced reinforcements, fuel was always a problem. The video below shows how Operation Barbarossa developed, and how the invading forces – the largest in history so far – failed to reach their goals before the onset of winter.

 

The third wheel

The speed of Blitzkrieg warfare required that motorcycle units had to be able to change wheels while moving.

Naah. The riders of that BMW R75 sidecar combination show off a trick that appears to have been rather popular, as I’ve seen a couple other photos featuring the same stunt. Motorcycles were used for reconnaissance and communications (dispatch riders), but there were also motorcycle battalions, a more modern form of cavalry. They were introduced as a cheap way to mechanize units when the Army expanded rapidly in the years before the outbreak of the war. The sidecar could have an MG 34 machine gun as armament. Motorcycle battalions were fast but lightly armed, and part of the Panzer divisions. From 1942, the MC battalions were equipped with armored vehicles instead. About 17,000 BMW R75 motorcycles were built before the war ended. It was rugged and popular, and copied by both Americans and Soviets.

Open country

A column of vehicles from the 3. Panzer-Division has made a brief halt during the advance into the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. There’s apparently little fear of Soviet air attacks, as the vehicles are bunched up in small groups. If there’s a threat of enemy attack planes, there should be at least 50 meters between the vehicles in order to lessen the effects of an attack. The car closest to the camera is a Volkswagen Typ 82, or as it became more known as: Kübelwagen. Aside from the sign for the 3. Panzer-Division (the inverted Y and two short bars, visible in the lower right-hand corner), it is marked with the tactical sign of the regimental headquarters of a towed artillery (howitzer) unit. The divisional symbol of the 3. Panzer-Division changed after the Battle of France ended and before Operation Barbarossa was launched. That happened to other units, too, which can be helpful in putting a date on photos, or at least a credible timeframe.

The Kübelwagen was a better design than other similar cars used by the Wehrmacht, but still not as rugged as the American Jeep. It was based on the same chassis as the classic Volkswagen Beetle. The air-cooled engine made it less vulnerable in extreme temperatures, and is saw action from the icy steppes of Russia to the deserts of North Africa. It was popular with the troops, and an amphibian version, the Schwimmwagen, was used for reconnaissance.

 

Thanks to Alanmccoubrey on Axis History Forum for help with the signs.