Freezing winter, blazing hate

January 1942, near Caparde in the Independent State of Croatia (now in Bosnia-Herzegovina). In the center of the photo is Oberst Rolf, and right behind him Hauptmann Köller, and to the right an unnamed Croatian Major acting as liaison officer for the Croatian Home Guard. The Germans are probably from the 718. Infanterie-Division, while the Croatian might be from the 5. Infantry Division. The photo might be taken prior to Unternehmen Kroatien Süd-Ost (“Operation Croatia South-East”), 15-23 January 1942. The German division was involved in anti-partisan warfare together with the 342. Infanterie-Division and Croatian units during this short campaign. It was essentially a search-and-destroy operation designed to locate and eliminate partisan forces in and around Sarajevo, Zvornik, Tuzla and others locations in the region. It was launched during the cold of winter so as to hit the partisan forces when they would be weak from lack of proper winter clothing and protection.

The 718. Infanterie-Division was formed on 30 April, 1941 from various units of the Replacement Army. It was intended for service in the Balkan region and was designed as an occupation and security unit to meet those needs. This unit, like the 14 others of the 700-designations, had at least half of its manpower consisting of older reservists with little experience. Many of the officers hadn’t been in uniform since WW1. The “700” divisions consisted of two infantry regiments instead of three, the latter being the norm until the Volksgrenadier divisions were introduced, and it had fewer motor vehicles and heavy weapons.

After formation, the Division was transported to Croatia and Bosnia, where it took part in security operations, anti-partisan drives, reconnaissance missions, mopping up actions, training, and general occupation duties. One of the major tasks was to protect the local industry, major railroads, and bauxite mining, which was very important to the German war effort (bauxite being needed for the production of aluminium). The Division was renamed the 118. Jäger-Division in 1943. It surrendered to British forces in Austria in May, 1945.

The Croatian Home Guard was founded in April 1941, a few days after the founding of the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) itself, following the collapse of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. It was done with the authorisation of German occupation authorities. The task of the new Croatian armed forces was to defend the new state against both foreign and domestic enemies. Its name was taken from the old Royal Croatian Home Guard – the Croatian section of the Royal Hungarian Landwehr component of the Austro-Hungarian Army. The NDH was a Fascist puppet state following the lead of Germany and Italy, its leadership targeting Serbs, Communists, Jews, Roma, and other “undesirables”. Following the anti-partisan actions, a Gestapo report to Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler, dated 17 February 1942, stated:

Increased activity of the [partisan] bands is chiefly due to atrocities carried out by Ustaše units in Croatia against the Orthodox population. The Ustaše [a Fascist Croatian movement] committed their deeds in a bestial manner not only against males of conscript age, but especially against helpless old people, women and children. The number of the Orthodox that the Croats have massacred and sadistically tortured to death is about three hundred thousand.

The fighting in Yugoslavia was extremely cruel, making even the Gestapo blanch. The Croatian and Serbian factions showed little mercy to each other. Still, German units got bogged down in anti-partisan warfare, the Germans worsening the situation by raising ethnic units like Muslim SS forces, contributing to the rising number of atrocities. The resulting resentment needed little prompting to be fanned into full-blown civil war 50 years later…

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Bring out the barrel

I wonder what’s in that barrel… A peaceful scene with a wintry backdrop, probably late in the winter of 1941-42. The icy barrel is placed on a small sled pulled by a hardy horse. Three German soldiers, one holding a single ski pole, are accompanied by two “Hiwis”. A “Hiwi”, which is short for Hilfswilliger (voluntary assistant), was a Soviet civilian or prisoner of war who had been enlisted or volunteered to assist the German Army. The one in the center of the photo wears overalls and valenki felt boots, while the other appears to wear a mix of military and civilian clothing. His armband has the text Im Dienst der Deutschen Wehrmacht (“In service of the German Armed Forces”) printed on it. This armband was introduced on 1 October 1941 for wear by non-German civilians serving the Wehrmacht and Soviet auxiliaries when not in uniform. If the Hiwis survived the war, they were probably sentenced for treason and sent to the gulag, from which they weren’t released until 1955.

Hold the line

German soldiers moving up, a junior officer leading the way, passing light sleds with abandoned equipment and what appears to be a wounded or dead soldier, his valenki felt boots sticking out. A stack of ammunition crates can be seen on the left. There are some notes written on the back of the photo, but I couldn’t decipher the handwriting. Thanks to Axis History Forum member nichte, some sense could be made out of it. The photo is most likely taken near Spasskaya, just north of Novgorod, in February 1942. The Red Army had mounted a massive counter-offensive, and to the south-east there was fierce fighting for the Demyansk Pocket. The difficult terrain, bad weather and stubborn German resistance stopped the Soviet attempts to reach a decisive result, though.

The text on the back:

Beim Transport von Verwundeten
in den Winterkämpfen im Februar
bei Spasskaja mit dem Schneeschuh
btl.

The great thing about the Internet is the ability to get in touch with people who have talents like reading crabbed German handwriting, and together with someone you’ve never met figure out the circumstances around a photo.

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.

Target acquisition

Two second lieutenants practicing with a Maschinengewehr 34 light machine gun, the two junior officers having the dubious pleasure of lying down in the snow. The weapon isn’t loaded yet; the loader rests his arms on two ammo drum carriers, each holding a pair of drums with a 75-round belt each. The drums were used while assaulting, whereas an ammo can with 250 belted rounds was used for more sustained fire. The loader holds a pair of Zeiss 6×30 binoculars for observation of the target.

The development of the MG 34 began in 1930, as there was a need for a machine gun that was lighter than e.g. the MG 08/15. While named “MG 34”, the weapon wasn’t adopted by the Wehrmacht until January 1939. It was a multi-purpose MG, which could be used with the integral bipod in the light mode, or with a sturdy tripod in the heavy mode. There was also a tripod for anti-aircraft use, and it was the standard machine gun for the majority of the armored vehicles

The MG 34 weighed 12.1 kg with its bipod, with a fire rate of 900 rounds per minute, using the standard 7.92 x 57 mm rifle round. The practical rate of fire was 300-400 rounds per minute, as the barrel would get too hot otherwise. The barrel could be changed in seconds, though. The effective range of the weapon was 2,000 m, but in theory it could be used for indirect fire at up to 3,500 meters. Germany entered the war in 1939 with 84,078 MG 34, and it remained the principal MG until 1943.

The problem with the MG 34 was that it was too well made. In the harsh winters on the Eastern Front, the finely machined parts were susceptible to jamming if the temperature got too low. Dirt and mud were other causes of jamming. The production of the weapon used a lot of raw materials (49 kg), and it took 150 hours to make. The Army saw the need for an MG that was cheaper and easier to produce (using stamped metal parts), and with tolerances that allowed for greater reliability in battlefield conditions. The answer was the iconic MG 42, which used 27.5 kilos of raw materials and took 75 hours to produce. This increased the output from 3,000 MGs per month in the fall of 1941 to 24,000 MGs in early 1944.

The MG 42 is still used in many armies of the world, only marginally updated, while the MG 34 is found in museums. Well, perhaps not just museums… Next time you watch a Star Wars movie, you can see that the DLT-19 heavy blaster rifles used by the Imperial stormtroopers are modified MG 34s.

Logged in

Three signals troops soldiers outside their rather substantial log cabin on the Eastern Front, the time probably the winter of 1942-43. Telephone wires and at least one antenna tells us that this is likely a command post for a company, perhaps for an artillery battalion. The fact that the log cabin isn’t dug in could indicate that it’s a way back from the frontline, or built after the ground froze. With some more snow, it will be camouflaged for the rest of the winter.

The soldiers show a variety of uniforms. The guy on the left wears the reversible snow jacket, which arrived during the autumn of 1942. Together with the reversible pants, it was a warm and practical snow suit to be worn over the regular uniform. It had a mouse-grey side (later changed to a greyish green) and a white side (obviously). The Unteroffizier in the center wears a 1936 pattern uniform, the silver-white edging on the collar and shoulderboards indicating his rank. By this time, silver-grey trim had been introduced, as it made the NCOs stand out less – an advantage in environments with snipers and other dangers. The Obergefreiter on the right wears a 1940 pattern uniform with subdued collar patches and rank chevrons. The lightning sleeve patch confirms that he belongs to the signals troops, the lightning itself probably the red of soldiers in artillery units. His cap appears to be non-regulation.

“Reading” a photo like this provides some information, even if there are no notes on the back of it. It would’ve been nice to know the identity of the unit and the location, but this is a common problem with many photos. Unless there are notes or they are mounted in an annotated album, the photo collector can’t get much further than this.

Hunter in the snow

Almost knee-deep in snow, a German soldier patrols a birch forest somewhere in Russia. The ample winter clothing indicates the winter of 1942-43, when the Army had learned its lesson from the catastrophic winter of 1941-42. He carries a Selbstladegewehr 259(r) (“self-loading rifle 259 (Russian)”) and Zeiss 6×30 binoculars. Is he out for some sniping? Impossible to tell, as the sniper version of the rifle had the scope mounted far back, and in that case his body is obscuring it.

The rifle is the Soviet SVT-40, one of the first semi-automatic rifles in service in any army. Two models had superceded it, the AVS-36 and the SVT-38, but their construction left much to be desired. The SVT-40, which was intended to become the standard battle rifle of the Red Army, had its problems, too, but it was mainly the difficulty of manufacture that made the Red Army keep the bolt-action Mosin-Nagant 91/30 rifle, as the huge losses in 1941 necessiated replacement weapons that were easy to produce.

Poor fitting made the SVT-40 less accurate, and unless overhauled and modified, shots tended to be dispersed vertically. For a sniper rifle, this was something of a drawback, and production of the sniper variant of the SVT was terminated in 1942. Production of the SVT ceased in 1945, after 1.6 million SVT-38/40 rifles had been made.

The binoculars are made by the famous optics manufacturer, Carl Zeiss of Jena. The 6x magnification, 30 mm front lens Dienstglas was the standard binoculars of the German Army, being in production from 1910 to 1975. Probably the biggest improvement came in 1936, when a scientist at Zeiss invented an anti-reflective coating that reduced the loss of light to a minimum (uncoated lenses caused a 20-25 % loss of light in a pair of binoculars), which gave the Germans an advantage, especially in poor lighting.

The pristine winter camo consists of an overcoat, mittens, and a fur-lined hat with ear flaps. Underneath it, the soldier wears warm clothing and winter boots, a vast improvement from the previous winter.