A good start to a good day

The men of what appears to be a mobile field workshop having breakfast. A big pot of ersatz coffee, sandwiches with spreads like jam, liver paste or canned cheese make for a good start of a hopefully productive day. A hammer rests on an anvil. The car is probably a 1939 Horch 830 BL Pullman saloon, a little worse for wear since it joined the Army. The photo is stamped 7 April 1943 on the back, but I suspect it was taken the year before. The chevron painted on the door might be a unit marking, but I haven’t found out which one.

The men sport haircuts typical of the German Army at the time. The skinhead look of the German soldiers in Saving Private Ryan was rather ahistorical. Some soldiers even wore their hair longer than American GIs, something that surprised the Yanks.

The second guy from the left is sitting on a 20 liter gas can. It’s made from stamped sheet steel, and the design has been essentially unchanged to this day. The Allies copied the design, calling it “Jerry can” as in “Jerries” = Germans. The British in particular picked up any they could lay their hands on, as their equivalents were known as “flimsies”, the name indicating their sturdiness (or rather lack thereof). If the cans had a white cross painted on them, they held water instead. Otherwise the morning coffee might be a bit stronger than intended by accident…

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Wehrmacht European Tour 1940

“Saarbrücken”, “Boulogne”, “Calais”, “Langemark”, “Dünkirchen” (Dunkirk), “Ipern” (Ypres), “Zeeland”… The names painted on the 9.7 ton Sd.Kfz. 7 towing a 15-cm schwere Feldhaubitze sFH 18 tells of the campaign in the West. I haven’t been able to identify the artillery battalion or regiment the howitzer and its crew belonged to. Artillery units are usually only mentioned in passing, and remain largely anonymous despite their importance on the battlefield.

The 15 cm caliber heavy field howitzer could lob a 43.5 kilo grenade 13 kilometers, making it useful for softening up enemy positions prior to assaults. Soviet artillery could fire at greater ranges, which put the sFH 18 at a definite disadvantage in case of counter-battery fire. At 5.5 tons, an artillery tractor like the Sd.Kfz. 7 was useful in moving it, but it could also be pulled by a team of horses. The gun crew rode in relative comfort, the halftrack being spacious enough to hold their personal kit, as well as the ammunition for the howitzer. In case of rain or snow, a canvas roof could be erected.

The gun crew in the photo probably travelled eastwards in 1941, attached to or part of a motorized division. Did they end up in the Courland Pocket, in the destruction of Army Group Center, or were their unit wiped out in Stalingrad? It’s impossible to know, but one thing is pretty sure: that road trip in the summer of 1940 was probably a fond memory once the harshness of the Eastern Front became evident.

“Would you like to come for a ride in my little tank?”

A German Kradmelder (motorcycle dispatch rider) sits on a captured French Renault UE chenillette (“small tracked vehicle”), a freshly painted German Balkenkreuz slapped on it to show who the new owners are. The chenillette was a light tracked armoured carrier and prime mover produced by France between 1932 and 1940. Its development was decided in 1930, as there was a need for a light armoured vehicle able to tow and supply light guns and mortars. In 1931 the Renault company was given the contract, and eventually over five thousand were built, becoming part of the standard equipment of all French infantry divisions. Most Renault UE vehicles in French service were unarmed, only the last version being armed with a machinegun, making it a “tankette”.

It was a very small vehicle, just 280 centimetres long, 174 cm wide and with its highest point at 125 cm. Its cargo carrying capacity was rather limited at about 350 kg. The Renault 85 38 horsepower engine provided it with a road speed of 30 kph. As it was such a low vehicle, the heads of the two-man crew were protected by two armored hoods. Those had vision slits, but the field of vision was rather limited. In the tradition of sometimes idiosyncratic French engineering, the two crewmen, separated by the engine between them, couldn’t communicate directly when the armored hoods were down. There was no internal radio set or even speaking tube fitted; instead, a system of white, blue, green and red lights was used by the commander to direct the driver.

The chenillette was mainly allocated to the regular infantry regiments. Their primary function was to provide frontline positions with ammunition and other necessities, especially if those were under artillery fire. The light armour was sufficient to stop shrapnel and rifle rounds. The Renault UE could carry or tow about 1000 kg of supplies – 350 kg in the cargo bin and 600 kg in a trailer. For longer distance moves, the chenillette would be normally loaded on a truck. Each infantry regiment had nine Renault UEs, and the divisional antitank company had three, making for a total of thirty vehicles in an infantry division.

The Germans had captured about 3000 chenillettes in the Battle of France. Most were employed unmodified as the Infanterie UE-Schlepper 630(f) for the 3.7 cm, 5 cm, 7.5 cm and 7.62 cm anti-tank guns, as well as a tractor for light and even heavier infantry guns. They were also used in their original role as munition carriers, and some were converted to self-propelled guns, with a German 3.7 cm Pak anti-tank gun fitted on top of it. A late modification from 1943 was the UE fitted with four Wurfrahmen 40 launchers for 28 or 32 cm rockets.

The little tractor saw some use in the post-war French army, but it was eventually replaced by more modern vehicles.

Boys in the hood

Four Luftwaffe soldiers learning about the intricacies of automobiles. The Gefreiter to the right has the round DLV Glider Pilot “A” Level Proficiency Badge on his chest (DLV = Deutscher Luftsportverband – German Air Sports Association) and on his uniform sleeve the winged wheel badge denoting a Schirrmeister/Geräteverwalter (K.) (technical NCO for motor vehicles). It was important to teach how to operate and maintain cars and trucks, as Germany had a rather low number of motor vehicles in relation to the population. According to my 1938 The Matthews-Northrup New International Atlas & Illustrated Gazetteer, the number of cars registered in the USA equalled one car for every five citizens, while the number in for example France was one in twenty. In Germany, it was one in sixty!

A possible reason for that low number might’ve been the weak German economy after World War 1 – the average Schmidt couldn’t afford a car. The motorization of the Wehrmacht wasn’t as widespread as in the US Army, and where the Germans still used horses to tow for example artillery as late as in 1944, the Americans, British and Soviets used trucks. As I’ve pointed out in other posts, the chronic fuel shortage and use of hard to maintain captured vehicles (instead of a standardized fleet of Army motor vehicles), meant that the Germans enjoyed less of a tactical and strategic flexibility compared to their opponents. The propaganda image of Panzers, armored cars and halftracks blitzing their way across Europe was false, but it still endures in shallow documentaries.

Rollbahn

“Rollbahn.” A German word that can mean a designated road – a road for troop movements and supply transports. On the Eastern Front, there were several of them, spanning the vast distances of the western parts of the Soviet Union. They were the main arteries, feeding the constantly hungry front with men, machines and matériel, the trucks of the Nachschub-Kolonnen-Abteilungen (supply transport battalions) traveling from west to east with much-needed fuel, food and other supplies.

It was important to build supply depots and to use railroads as much as possible, because if the distances were too great, it would consume more than a unit fuel to transport one unit of fuel. Another consideration was rear area security. With long lines of supply, transports were targets for partisan units. The problem was greatest in Army Group Center’s area of operations, where some 80,000-100,000 partisans were active. The soldiers tasked with rear area security were mostly older men in their 40’s, many of them veterans of World War 1, organized in battalions. Armed mostly with captured weapons, they performed well given the circumstances. Still, given the number of partisans and the vast areas to cover, the Germans never gained the upper hand.

The photo above shows a part of the Rollbahn, like so many Soviet roads without any hardened road surface, muddy from the pelting rain. Imagine driving kilometer after kilometer on those roads, in a truck with no power steering and all the comforts of 1930’s technology, and with the constant threat of air attacks and partisan ambushes. The men – of any army – who managed to bring the supplies to the front were the unsung heroes of World War 2.

After action maintenance

The crew of an Sd.Kfz 10/4 cleaning the Flak 30 2 cm caliber automatic AA gun. The Sd.Kfz 10 was a light artillery tractor, and by mounting a Flugabwehrkanone 30 on it, it became a mobile AA gun platform. Each vehicle carried 13 20-round box magazines, one of which can be seen in the hands of the soldier on the left. It took six seconds to empty a magazine, which required the loader to exchange them quickly if the fire rate was to be maintained.

An early war Army anti-aircraft company (Flugabwehr-Kompanie) was organized in three platoons with a total of eighteen Sd.Kfz. 10/4s, twelve with guns and six carrying ammunition. The Sd.Kfz 10/4 was used by both Army and Luftwaffe AA units. It was deployed against both air and ground targets, but a major drawback was the poor protection of the crews against shrapnel and small-caliber fire. Later versions had armor plating added. In 1941, the four-barreled 2 cm Flakvierling 38 was fielded, providing fearsome firepower at an effective range up to 2200 meters for air targets.

The photo is probably from 1940-41. The crew has parked the vehicle in the cover of trees, which implies that there might be a threat from enemy aircraft. The off-white linen Drillich uniforms hint that it isn’t immediate, though, as the crew seems to have enough time to change out of their regular field uniforms. Better safe than sorry, though, as they wouldn’t want to be caught flat-footed by enemy aircraft while the gun is dismounted for a thorough cleaning.

From riches to rags

Three years after enjoying life in the French chateau, the men of Propagandakompanie 612 found themselves on the Eastern Front. Attached to the 9th Army since 1941, life was considerably less comfortable, even if they didn’t have to endure daily life in the frontline. They went on writing their stories for both army publications and for newspapers and magazines back home. With the increasingly difficult times and slow retreat, it was important to boost morale.

When reading about what many soldiers thought of the war, of their confident attitude when captured (at least by the Americans and British), sure that the wonder weapons would break the Allies or that the Western Allies and Germany would join in an alliance against the “Asian hordes”, it seems like the propaganda worked. There were very few news sources not controlled by Josef Goebbel’s Ministry of Propaganda. Daring Germans could try to tune in BBC’s world service, but for a soldier in the field, state media and military censorship kept him from learning anything but the official version. Still, rumours and letters from home revealed that the war wasn’t going Germany’s way. Added to the stress on the front was the worry for families and loved ones back home, who were subject to the increasing bombing campaign against Germany.

From August 1944, political officers were assigned to batallions and regiments to make sure that the Nazi worldview prevailed. These Nationalsozialistischer Führungsoffiziere (NSFO) were similar to the Red Army commissars, with the difference that they had no say in military decisions. Having lived in an environment steeped in propaganda for a dozen years, German prisoners of war had trouble accepting news on for example Nazi crimes against humanity, thinking that it was just more propaganda, only from different sources. The men in Propaganda Company 612 ended up in Berlin in 1945, and those who didn’t escape the encircled city went into Soviet captivity, which, if they were lucky to survive it, they wouldn’t return from until 7-8 years later.