A rare bird

I got this photo in an auction lot, but couldn’t identify the airplane. At first, I thought it was a British biplane, perhaps something from Hawker. The lack of any lower wing threw me a bit, though… While researching the previous post, I found a mention about the Belgian Air Force, illustrated with a biplane. I checked the Wikipedia article on the BAF in WW2, and the types of planes that were flown. I checked one, and – bingo! The plane in the photo is a Renard R.31! Further searches yielded a photo that was most likely of the same wreck. This is what makes this kind of research fun.

As for the Renard R.31, it was a Belgian reconnaissance aircraft which first flew in 1932. It was the only military WW2 aircraft entirely designed and built in Belgium. The R.31 entered service with the Belgian Air Force in 1935, but it wasn’t popular with its pilots, as it had poor handling and was vulnerable to entering flat spins. Only 34 R.31s were built. It was obsolete when Belgium was invaded in 1940, and those that were not destroyed on the ground in the early hours of the German invasion were savaged by German fighter planes as they attempted to gather information on the invading forces.

Following the German occupation of Belgium, the Luftwaffe showed no interest in the R.31s, and those that had survived were unused or destroyed. Overall, these machines had no significant impact on the Battle of Belgium.

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Denied to the enemy

The wreck of a French Char B1 bis sits in a street corner in Beaumont, Belgium, after having been blown up by its own crew on 16 May, 1940, probably after having run out of fuel. Named “Rhône” (painted on the turret lying next to the wreck), it was one of the tanks in the 37th Bataillon de Chars de Combat, serving with 1st Division Cuirassées de Réserve, which was equipped with 69 Char B1 bis tanks. The tank was armed with a 75 mm howitzer in the hull and a 47 mm gun in the turret. Starting in the early twenties, its development and production were delayed, resulting in a vehicle that was both complex and expensive, and already obsolescent when real mass-production of the derived version, the Char B1 bis, started in the late thirties. About 400 tanks were built, costing 1.5 million French Francs each.

The 28-ton tank was crewed by four men, and was among the most powerfully armed and armored tanks of its day. The type was very effective in direct confrontations with German armor in 1940 during the Battle of France, like in the fight for the French village Stonne on 16 May, 1940, where a Char B1 bis commanded by captain Pierre Billotte knocked out 13 German PzKpfw IIIs and IVs in a few minutes, while none of 140 hits by German guns managed to penetrate. Slow speed and high fuel consumption made it ill-adapted to the war of movement then being fought, though. After the defeat of France, captured Char B1 bis would be used by Germany, with some rebuilt as flamethrowers or self-propelled artillery.

The tank is most likely not the same tank as the one on display, painted with the same markings, in the Saumur Tank Museum, France.

One of millions

German soldiers are sight-seeing in Paris in the summer of 1940 after the victory over France. They have gathered around the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which is situated beneath the Arc de Triomphe. The remains of an unknown French soldier, chosen from eight “candidates”, was moved to the Arc on Armistice Day 1920, and interred in its final resting place on 28 January 1921. It has the first eternal flame lit in Europe since the fourth century. It burns in memory of the war dead who were never identified.

A ceremony is held at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier every 11 November on the anniversary of the armistice signed by the Entente Powers and Germany in 1918. The slab on top bears the inscription ICI REPOSE UN SOLDAT FRANÇAIS MORT POUR LA PATRIE 1914–1918 (“Here lies a French soldier who died for the fatherland 1914–1918”). After the interment of the Unknown Soldier, all military parades have avoided marching through the actual arch. The route taken is up to the arch and then around its side, out of respect for the tomb. Both Hitler in 1940 and de Gaulle in 1944 observed this custom.

Did they think of fathers and older brothers, who had fought the unknown French soldier? Did they reflect over their own mortality? Did any of the soldiers in the photo end up in war graves, or go missing in combat? The dead aren’t bothered by such thoughts; it’s the living who are worried about dying without fulfilling their lives.

150 posts!

That deserves a medal, I think. This photo was most likely taken in France, 1940. A Feldwebel (Staff sergeant) receives a medal, most likely an Iron Cross. It all seems a little improptu, which makes me believe that this was right after the sergeant had done something brave.

So, 150 posts… That’s about 50 posts a month, but as some of you might’ve noticed, I have cut it back to about one post a day. Almost half of the posts were in July alone, but then I wanted to create something for people to browse as the rate would inevitably drop. I still have a lot of photos to talk about, so I won’t run out of material any time soon. What I would like to see is more people following this blog, and especially to see more comments. It’s not like I’m attention-seeking, but it would be nice to have a two-way communication with visitors and followers.

Anyway, those of you who return here to read what I post about World War 2 and the men of the Wehrmacht, I thank you, and hope you’ll continue to follow this blog.

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.

Phoney War, part 2

Three of the men from the photo in the previous post are building a barbed wire entanglement and digging a foxhole, somewhere along the Franco-German border during the “Phoney War”, September 1939 to May 1940. This was pretty much what the “Siegfried Line” amounted to, as the Germans hadn’t finished building the line of bunkers and other fortifications that would later go under the name “Westwall“.

While the bulk of the German army was engaged in Poland, the western border was held by a much smaller force. At the much more intimidating Maginot Line across the border, British and French troops stood facing them, but there were only some local skirmishes, while in the air there were occasional dogfights between fighter planes.

The Saar Offensive was a French attack into the Saarland defended by the German 1st Army. It started on 7 September, its purpose to assist Poland, but the assault was stopped after a few kilometres and the French forces withdrew. Eleven French divisions had advanced along a 32 km line near Saarbrücken against weak German opposition, but the attack didn’t result in the diversion of any German troops from Poland. According to the Franco-Polish agreement, on the 15th day of the mobilisation (that is on 16 September), the French Army was to start a full-scale assault on Germany, but that didn’t happen. Instead, the French informed the Poles that the major offensive on the western front planned from 17–20 September had to be postponed. At the same time, French divisions were ordered to withdraw to their barracks along the Maginot Line, beginning the Phoney War.

At the Nuremberg Trials in 1946, German military commander Alfred Jodl said that “if we did not collapse already in the year 1939 that was due only to the fact that during the Polish campaign, the approximately 110 French and British divisions in the West were held completely inactive against the 23 German divisions.” General Siegfried Westphal stated that if the French had attacked in force in September 1939, the German Army “could only have held out for one or two weeks.” The German Army had ammunition stocks good for two weeks, so any major Allied offensive would’ve been devastating. Hitler could’ve been stopped in the autumn of 1939, had the Western Allies been more decisive. Instead, on 10 May 1940, the German Army attacked, and it would take almost five years before the Allies crossed the border to finish Hitler’s Reich, tens of millions of dead people later.