Howitzer on ice

A serene scene, a column of 9.7 ton Sd.Kfz. 7 artillery tractors towing 15-cm schwere Feldhaubitze sFH 18 howitzers through a fir forest, the boughs laden with snow. One can almost hear the idling engines, muffled by the trees. But there’s a hidden danger… The sign warns of Glatteis – black ice – which the tracked vehicles don’t have any greater problem negotiating, but which the towed guns might have. Without snow chains, the hard rubber tires might skid if there’s a sharp turn, and 5.3 tons of hardware could end up in a ditch… What would that look like? See tomorrow’s post.


Between the battles

A Mercedes-Benz Typ L1500 A Mannschaftwagen (L301) outside a burned-out apartment building, probably in the Rzhev area during the winter of 1942-43. The all-terrain vehicle is very easy to confuse with the mittlere geländegängige Personenkraftwagen (medium cross country passenger car), type Kfz. 12, which was built by Steyr, Wanderer and Opel. It had a similar function, though, and 4,900 cars were made between 1941 and 1943.

The cross on the side of the vehicle (and faintly seen on the back) is most likely a divisional sign, and not the Balkencreuz painted on German vehicles in almost every war movie. Contrary to popular belief, soft-skinned vehicles (trucks, cars) rarely carried the cross seen on armored vehicles. Anyway, a yellow cross was used by the 72. Infanterie-Division, and I think that it’s the likeliest candidate for the unit having its car park outside those ruins.

The 72. Infanterie-Division was raised in 1939 in Trier, and took part in the campaigns in France 1940, the Balkans in 1941, and then the Soviet Union a couple months later. It saw heavy action on the Eastern Front, and suffered severe losses when breaking out of the Korsun Pocket in February 1944. The division was rebuilt and sent back into the fray. In January 1945, the division was mauled at the Baranow bridgehead on the Vistula, and after a retreat the division surrendered to the Red Army in May 1945 in the Erzgebirge region of Czechoslovakia.

When reading about this or that division taking heavy losses, it’s easy to forget that a division is more than 10,000 men suffering hardships, many of them never returning home. While the strategic and operational narratives are important in order to understand the flow of the war, it is the reading of personal accounts that puts a human aspect on the events. The rest of my posts for this month will (with a couple of exceptions) be more about the people fighting and enduring the war, and the times they could enjoy a temporary escape from the hardships.

Rush hour

An officer and his driver standing in front of a Mercedes-Benz 170 V, somewhere on the Eastern Front in the winter of 1941-42. They look comfortable in their 1940 pattern greatcoats, recognizable by their field-grey collars (as opposed to the dark green collars of the previous pattern). The car’s engine hood is covered with rush mats in an attempt to reduce the risk of the water-cooled M136 engine freezing. The driver has a standard Army “Daimon” flashlight buttoned to the left side of his greatcoat.

The Mercedes-Benz W136 was Mercedes-Benz’s line of inline-four cylinder cars from the mid-1930s into the 1950s. The model 170 V made its public debut in February 1936. Between 1936 and 1939 it was Mercedes’ top selling model, and between 1936 and 1942 over 75,000 were built, making it by far the most popular Mercedes-Benz model up till that point. Thousands of that model were used by the Wehrmacht on almost all fronts.


An original Mercedes-Benz 170 V decked out as a Wehrmacht vehicle. Maybe a little overdone, but an interesting display nonetheless.

Thanks to Axis History Forum member Bill Murray for ID’ing the car.

Across the Dnieper

The summer of 1941, the Soviet Union. An SdKfz 10 towing a PaK 36 anti-tank gun crosses the wide Dnieper river on a pontoon bridge built by an engineer unit. The registration plate on the halftrack marks the vehicle as belonging to the Waffen-SS, which, because of the location, would make it belong to either SS-Division (mot) “Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler” (LAH) or SS-Division “Wiking”. The former was Hitler’s “life guard” unit, first among equals, while the latter was made up from “Germanic” volunteers from the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Denmark and other countries occupied by Nazi Germany.

Six Waffen-SS divisions participated in Operation Barbarossa: LAH, Das Reich, Totenkopf, Polizei, Wiking, and Nord. As the war progressed, a further 32 divisions were established, but many were understrength and/or of questionable quality. Several were used for anti-partisan warfare, where they committed war crimes. Even the “elite” formations were involved in war crimes, with the possible exception for Nord. Some of the “ethnic” double-digit divisions acquitted themselves well, but in general they were far from the elite formations some think was the norm for the entire Waffen-SS. They were part of the Nazi idea of a pan-European army fighting against Communism, but the vision of an Aryan elite clashed with reality. Some of the units, most notably Dirlewanger and the Kaminski Brigade, were little more than armed rabble and criminals.

Still, when the best divisions were in the frontline, there were few other formations that could rival them. The fighting spirit displayed made them feared and respected adversaries, but the taint of their war crimes and involvement in crimes against humanity tarnishes their memory.

Beep, beep, jeep, sheep

Rush hour in the pasture. A mittlerer ge­län­de­gängiger Personenkraftwagen (“medium cross-coun­try personnel car”), or “Kfz. 11” for short, is held up by a flock of sheep. When the German Army began expanding in 1935, the need for standardized cars with off-road capacity became apparent. The first light off-road passenger cars were delivered by Stoewer in 1936, followed in 1937 by the first medium and in 1938 by the first heavy models. The problems stacked up quickly – high costs, complex production, and manufacturers unable to meet the production goals. The Wehrmacht had to source 60% of their requirements elsewhere, converting regular civilian cars to military use, as well as employing requisitioned and captured civilian cars. This in turn led to many problems with maintenance, supply and training.

The different branches of the military complained that the Einheits-Pkw (standard passenger car) were also flawed designs largely unfit for wartime service, a serious drawback to say the least. Not even after simplifications were implemented in 1940 were the many shortcomings solved. Their complex designs and the excessive wear and tear aside, all types were mainly criticized for their high weight, which in turn meant a high fuel consumption and led to many breakdowns. Production of the three types ceased in 1942, 1943 and 1941, respectively. Their roles were in large parts taken over by the VW Kübelwagen.

Maas Effect

May, 1940: motorcycles, probably of a Kradschützen-Bataillon (“motorcycle rifle battalion”) belonging to a Panzer-Division, cross the Maas river on ferries built by the divisional combat engineer battalion. The Kradschützen were used for reconnaisance, able to range fast and far on their sidecar motorcycles. Later in the war, they were upgraded with armored cars.

Maas (or as it is also known by in French: Meuse) is a river that runs through France, Belgium and the Netherlands. It was a major hurdle for the German armies attacking on 10 May, 1940. Where they didn’t manage to capture bridges intact – in some cases through coup de mains by Brandenburg commandos – they had to assault across the river in rubber dinghies, sometimes under heavy fire.

Fast forward 4½ years. The Germans launch another offensive – the last major one – in the Ardennes. Crossing the Maas/Meuse was the first step towards the port city of Antwerpen and the objective to cut the Allied front in half. A German unit managed to come within sight of the river, but that was the furthest they got during the Battle of the Bulge. The Wehrmacht of 1944 – bled white after five years of war – couldn’t achieve what it did in 1940. Hitler’s Reich was done for.

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…