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.


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.

Forced landing

A Messerschmitt Bf 110 has ended up at the edge of a field, damaged but repairable. The starboard wing has a deep gouge (left edge of photo, probably caused by hitting a tree), but the aircraft stopped mere centimeters before the starboard propeller hit the tree to the left. The pilot likely picked the field for an emergency landing, and found out the hard way that it was too short. There must’ve been some harrowing seconds before he managed to stop the plane before running into that tree. The three-man crew could walk away from the plane with no injuries other than perhaps to their dignity.

Some soldiers – two of them Kradmelder (motorcycle dispatch riders) – pose by the plane. The single-decal helmets help date the photo to no earlier than March 1940, and I’m fairly sure that this photo is from the campaign in the West that year.

One lesser-known fact about the Bf 110 is that many of the men reassigned to become Messerschmitt Me 262 pilots – the first jet pilots – were previous Bf 110 pilots. The rationale behind that was probably that they were trained on twin-engine planes, and that the Me 262 was initially intended to be used as a fighter-bomber.

Disaster has struck

Two train sets have smashed into each other, causing a massive derailment and an unknown number of deaths. On the ground close to the camera lie the bodies of killed soldiers, covered by Zeltbähne. Just to the left of the center of the photo is a dead mule or horse. The locomotives are still on the track, but the cab of left one is smashed by the tender. Railway cars have piled up and are torn asunder, spilling men, animals and matériel over the ground. Soldiers and railway personnel survey the devastation, which will take days to clear away. Telegrams will be sent to the families of those killed, while the people who escaped with injuries will spend the next weeks in hospitals.

There is no information when or where this accident occurred, or what caused it. Was it just an accident, human error like a mistake at a switch or a missed signal, setting the trains on a collision course, or was it sabotage while crossing occupied territory? As trains were the major means of transport, they were the targets of sabotage, partisan attacks, and airstrikes. Military trains had flatbed cars with antiaircraft guns, like the Flakvierling, and it wasn’t uncommon to have an empty goods or flatbed car in front of the locomotive, which would take the first hit if the rails were mined, saving the locomotive from the worst of the blast.

This photo is probably one of the few mementos of that railway disaster, apart for some yellowing clippings in some newspaper archive, a forgotten official report, and a few  letters stashed away with other memories of something that happened about 75 years ago. A tragedy lost in the greater tragedy that was the Second World War.

“Ich glaube es ist Französisch.”

In my ever-expanding series “Luftwaffe bombers that have met an ignominious end”, the turn has come to the Heinkel He 111. This is an He 111 P-2, as far as I can tell. This photo is from June 1940, somewhere in northern France. On the back, someone wrote “Abgeschossenes Französischer Bomber” – “downed French bomber” – which it definitely isn’t. The only explanation I can think of is that the person who wrote that remembered wrong when going through a bunch of photos with destroyed military hardware. The photographer was a member of Propagandakompanie 612, which was one of several such units tasked with producing propaganda in the form of leaflets, posters, etc.

Propagandakompanie 612 mobilized in 1939 in Wiesbaden, and was attached to 1st Army. It spent late 1939 and early 1940 during the “Phony War” at the Westwall. It followed the advance during the Battle of France in 1940, ending up in Le Havre. In 1941, it was transferred to the 9th Army and the Eastern Front, where it remained for the rest of the war. It recorded the battles in central Russia, like Vitebsk, Rzhev, and Kaluga. In 1944, it relocated to Warsaw, then Frankfurt and der Oder in 1945, and finally Berlin.

Normally a PK Propagandatrupp or Kriegsberichtertrupp at divisional or regimental level consisted of a war reporter (Kriegsberichter), cameraman (Bildberichter) and a driver. Several Truppen formed a propaganda platoon (Propagandazug or Kriegsberichterzug) at corps level, while several propaganda platoons constituted a propaganda company (Propagandakompanie) at Army level.

The cameramen, translators, reporters, censors, sound operators and other technical staff of a Propagandakompanie were often specialists, some being civilians recruited by the army in this role due to their individual skills and therefore often holding the special rank of Sonderführer (special director).

And what about the poor Heinkel? It was one of a total of 6,508 built, the first prototype flying in 1935. The project masqueraded as civilian at first, as Germany was prohibited to develop bombers by the Versailles Treaty. The “passenger planes” were eminently suited to serve as medium bombers, though… It first saw action in the Spanish Civil War, and went on to become the main bomber of the Luftwaffe, dropping bombs over Warszaw, Rotterdam, London, Belgrade… During the battle for Stalingrad, it was used as a transport, but the Luftwaffe managed to deliver only 10 % of what the encircled 6th Army needed. Weak defensive armament made it vulnerable to enemy fighters, though, and by 1943 it was edged out by the Junkers Ju 88 and Dornier Do 217. Still, it served to the last days of the war.

Final stop

Go home Ivan, you’re drunk… A Soviet BT-7-2 has crashed into a phone pole, the driver having trouble controlling it after losing the track on the right side. The BT-7 was introduced in 1935, and got its baptism of fire against the Japanese at Khalkin Gol in 1939. It saw action in Poland and Finland later that year, the Finns capturing 56 of them and adding them to their small tank force.

Armed with a 45 mm gun, the tank was a so called “cavalry tank”, which sacrificed armor protection for speed. The Christie suspension (later seen on its successor, the T-34) gave it good cross-country characteristics. The tank in the photo is the 1937 upgrade with the T-26 model 1937 conical turret, the two round hatches making the Germans nickname it “Mickey Mouse”. A pair of headlights above the main gun were used for night fighting. The tank had a crew of three (commander/gunner, loader, and driver), which together with the lack of a commander’s cupola and radio made the commander’s task hard and dangerous.

About 2000 tanks – 40 % of the total number built – were lost in the first 12 months after the launch of Operation Barbarossa. Still, the BT-7 was still active on all fronts by the end of the war in 1945.

Royal visit

Orléans, France, late June 1940. The wreck of a French Potez 63.11, the reconnaisance version in the Potez family of twin-engined heavy fighters and light bombers, has ended up on the Pont Royal bridge. The bridge was renamed “Pont George V” after the war as recognition of Britain’s role in the war. The city of Orléans was a transport hub for the German occupation forces, and became the target of extensive bombing.

The Potez 630 family was the French equivalent of the German Messerschmitt Bf 110. While reportedly pleasant to fly, it was somewhat underpowered and not heavily armed. Its performance wasn’t impressive, and it suffered if faster enemy fighters were present.