At the crossroads

Summer of 1941, outside the town of Nevel in western Russia. The wreck of a Soviet T-26 tank stands forlornly by the roadside, while the German signposts signal who the new masters are. Nevel was captured by the Germans on 16 July 1941, and it took almost two years and three months before it was liberated.

The signs show the directions for a medical aid station, a prisoner of war collection point, an ammunition depot, a fuel depot, the headquarters of an antiaircraft regiment, a home leave supervision office, and many more. A collection of signs like this was called a Schilderwald – a forest of signs. It is an indication of the many and varied units and installations behind the front lines, where the system for the units at the front did what it could to support the fighting.

One would think that life behind the front was safe and cushy, and it was most of the time, but with mounting partisan activity, rear area units were prime targets for raids and sabotage. As the fortunes of war turned against the Germans, clerks and support personnel would find themselves sent to reinforce crumbling frontlines, clutching rifles not fired since basic training. In October 1943, the signs were kicked over by advancing Soviet troops, and replaced with similar signs in Russian.


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13 km/h. By 1940, the concept proved to be flawed, and those of the 140 tanks produced that weren’t lost in France were withdrawn from frontline use and used for training instead.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.

I hate Mondays…

Back at work and feeling the Monday blues? Made a mistake because you let your thoughts wander, thinking of next weekend? Remember that there’s always someone who has messed up worse than you. The driver of the Pz.Kpfw III in the photo was probably not a happy bunny once his commander had chewed him out. The narrow road makes recovery of the tank a tricky task, but once back on its tracks, it shouldn’t be too hard to put it back in fighting condition. Meanwhile, it’s something for people to gawk at. Who knows, they might even feel a little bit of…

Wreckage of war

Sommer of 1941, somewhere in the western parts of the Soviet Union. In front of a knocked out Soviet BT-7 tank lie the cadaver of the horse that pulled the wrecked wagon and the body of the man who drove it. The German soldiers appear unaffected by the sight, but anyone reading memoirs by veterans from any country realize that death soon became so commonplace that it took much to make them react. Dead children, women and animals usually stirred up more emotions than yet another killed enemy. Even dead soldiers from their own side didn’t affect them much, unless the bodies showed signs of torture, execution, or if they had been mutilated. That often resulted in an unwillingness to take any prisoners. War has a brutalizing effect, and most soldiers could only deal with by becoming emotionally numb. Those who survived the war had often to face their demons as post-traumatic stress disorder caught up with them. Most never told their families what they had lived through, taking their bad memories with them to the grave.

Under new management

An airfield somewhere on the Eastern Front during Operation Barbarossa, summer of 1941. Some Junkers Ju 88s are parked on the edge of the field, most likely getting prepared for the next mission. There’s a placename scrawled on the back of the photo, but it was hard to see what it said. Luckily, some of the members of the Axis History Forum (nichte, history1, and GregSingh) could help me, and it appears like the airfield is one of the nine outside Minsk in Belarus which were used by the Germans. The previous owners have been evicted, leaving just the mangled wrecks of biplanes, probably destroyed on the ground on the first day of the offensive. The Soviets lost about 2,000 planes on that first day, a devastating blow to the USSR’s airforce.

The Germans captured Minsk four days later, so it’s possible the photo is from the end of June 1941. Both Soviets and Germans usually operated from grass airfields, bases with concrete runways being somewhat of a luxury. A Ju 88 needed at least 530 meters for take off, so the field above appears to be sufficient. The periods of mud in autumn and spring presented a problem, though, making it harder for take off and landing. Many planes were lost because of the mud, adding yet another danger for the aircrews on the Eastern Front.

Please recycle

An Unteroffizier watching a train shipping airplane wreckage to the smelters as his train passes by. The star on the wing next to his head has a star, indicating that the scrap metal is the remains of destroyed Soviet airplanes. Germany was in constant need of metal for its arms production, and the many thousands of Red Army Air Force planes that had been wrecked on the ground or shot down were a valuable source of steel, aluminium and other metals. Perhaps the metal from SB 2M wreck in the previous post was recycled and used for German airplanes.

The battlefields across the globe were littered with wrecked tanks, trucks, airplanes and other war materiel, the cleanup after the war taking many years. Most were recovered as scrap metal and melted, but now, over 70 years later, wrecks of tanks and planes are recovered from bogs, lakes, seas and rivers, and carefully restored back to their original state, to be displayed in museums or even put back in running or flying condition. Right after the war, few thought of preserving those war machines, and in some cases there’s only a single plane or tank preserved of a production run in the thousands.

The Jagdpanther in the clip below was restored from two shot-up wrecks recovered from firing grounds, additional parts sourced from over a dozen collectors around the world. It is one of three Jagdpanthers in running condition, with a further seven kept in museums, out of a total production run of 415 tanks.


Gone to ground

A German cavalry unit has come across the wreck of a Soviet Tupolev SB 2M light bomber, its landing gear and engines ripped off in the crash landing. The location is somewhere in the Soviet Union, most likely during the first weeks of Operation Barbarossa. The Red Army Air Force suffered heavy losses, and it took the Soviets a couple of years before they had wrested air superiority from the Germans.

The Tupolev ANT-40, also known by its service name Tupolev SB (Russian: Skorostnoi Bombardirovschik – high speed bomber), was a twin-engined three-seat light bomber, first flown in 1934. More than 6,600 were built in different versions between 1936 and 1941. The rapid development of fighter planes made the design, which was considered successful in the mid-30s, in need of replacement by the early 1940’s. Still, 94 % of the Soviet bomber force was made up from SB 2Ms by the time of the German invasion in June, 1941, some 1,500-2,000 deployed near the border, where they fell victim to German attacks on airfields. Those that survived the initial onslaught were poorly used, and within a few days, losses forced most of the remaining SBs to switch to night attacks.

SBs continued to be used, in the defense of Leningrad and Moscow, mainly at night by attacking German artillery. By December 1941 almost all of the SBs had either been replaced by more modern bombers like Pe-2s or lost, although it remained in large-scale use until March 1942 in the North against Finland. The Finns used captured SBs against their previous owners. SBs continued in use for non-combat roles such as supply dropping, glider towing and training, and continued in use in the Far East until 1945.