Burial detail

The aftermath of battle… A group of German soldiers is about to take care of three dead French soldiers. The place is Boulogne-sur-Mer, a day or three after the Germans captured the Channel coast port town on 25 May, 1940. French and British units defended the town against attacks by the 2. Panzer-Division. The British managed to evacuate the majority of their troops, but a rearguard was left together with the French units, the survivors going into captivity for the next five years.

The delay caused by the fighting for Boulogne was a contributing factor to the success of the evacuation at Dunkerque. The few extra days meant that the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force got away. The dead French soldiers in that street corner never knew that their deaths were part of the price for the “Miracle of Dunkirk”.

Going where?

Sometime later in the war (1943 or later), an NCO looks out a train window. Is he going to or from the front? Is he on a two-week leave? There’s no way to tell.

Train travel was the most common mode of long-distance transport. Troops, supplies and materiel went thousands of kilometers all over Europe, and that made trains, bridges, railway hubs and marshalling yards prime targets for Allied bombers and fighter-bombers. Strafing attacks of trains destroyed many thousands of passenger and freight cars, as well as locomotives. The Allied pilots seldom had the opportunity to tell whether a train was transporting troops or civilians; if it didn’t display red cross markings, it was fair game. The attacks severely disrupted German troop movements and supply trains.

When I was a teenager, I worked together with a German, Günther, who was 15 years old when the war ended. He lived in the countryside north of Berlin, and one spring day in 1945, he was biking alongside a railway track some distance away. A train with freight cars with brabed wire across the small windows high up on the sides was chugging along, when a couple of Allied figther-bombers appeared. They began to shoot up the train. Günther threw himself in a ditch for cover, and saw hands stretched out of the openings, waving anything white. It seems like the train was carrying concentration camp prisoners. He didn’t stay around to check, and left as soon as the airplanes had run out of ammunition.

A Wanderer on the Road

Gefreiter changes the tire on an Auto Union Wanderer cabriolet used by the medical personnel of a motorized anti-tank company. The car is a civilian vehicle, not originally intended for military use, but making up the plethora of models and makes used by the Wehrmacht. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the lack of standardization resulted in problems with the supply of spare parts. The car hasn’t got the characteristic slitted headlight covers seen on German military vehicles; instead, it appears like the headlights have received some paint in order to reduce the glare that could make the enemy spot a vehicle from afar in the dark. The chromed bumper has a worn coat of paint, too.

The Leutnant standing to the right might be a Sanitätsoffizier – medical officer – but at that rank, he should be at battalion level. A fun detail is that he has turned his peaked cap back-to-front, probably to avoid losing it when travelling at speed. There’s a chinstrap, but it seems like he doesn’t favor it. All in all, a snapshot of a small event, over 75 years ago.

A ditched gun and a puzzle

Near the Desna River in eastern Ukraine, July 1941, a couple of soldiers belonging to Army Group Center take a look at a ditched Soviet 152 mm howitzer-gun M1937 (ML-20). The ML-20 was one of the most successful Soviet artillery pieces of WW2. Its characteristics positioned it between classical short-range howitzers and special long-range guns. Like so many other Red Army guns left behind, this one will probably be pressed into German service, designated as 15,2-cm Kanonenhaubitze 433/1(r).

The photo is interesting as it makes me wonder who the guy who took it was. On the back of it is pencilled: “Ecce quam bonum et quam jucundum habitare fratres in unum” (“Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity”), a line from psalm 133. The combination of education and irony appeals to me. Did his erudition and wit see him through the war, or did he end up beneath a birch cross somewhere in the depths of Russia? If so, which psalm was sung over him in the church back in his home town? Or did he return after the war to pick up his civilian career? So many questions, so little answers…

Three amigos

A trio of cheerful guys, bespectacled and with classy straight pipes. The back of the photo only says “Januar 1944”. The place is western Europe – France, Belgium or the Netherlands – and their branch of service is probably the coastal artillery, which was the responsibility of the Kriegsmarine (Navy). There are some subtle differences to their uniforms that make me think that, mostly the style of their sidecaps and an emblem on their shoulderboards (visible under magnification on the original photo). Anyway, little do they know that they’ll probably be in combat in five months. Hopefully the three friends survived the war.

“Heia Safari!”

Gefreiter wearing the tropical uniform used in North Africa and some parts of the Mediterranian Theater of Operations. While I cannot say for sure that he belongs to Rommel’s Afrika Korps, it is likely that the photo was shot either in southern Italy while waiting to be shipped over, or shortly after the arrival to Africa. Troops who had served in Africa for two months got the right to wear the “Afrikakorps” cuff title on the left sleeve.

Still, the young soldier in the photo has some experience. He has the ribbons for the Iron Cross, 2nd class (button hole) and the Kriegsverdienstkreuz (War Merit Cross, over left breast pocket). The War Merit Cross, which was often awarded to non-combatants and rear-area troops, was called das Feldküchensturmabzeichen (the Field Kitchen Assault Badge) by cynical frontline troops… The Infanterie-Sturmabzeichen in silver shows that he has participated in three separate assaults while serving in an infantry unit (as opposed to a motorized Panzer unit), and the Verwundeteabzeichen (Wound Badge), probably in black (paint rubbed off to reveal the brass underneath), for one or two combat wounds.

He’s wearing the tropical uniform, with the early high-laced canvas-and-leather boots, and the peaked cap. The tunic sleeves are too short, which is odd, as the Germans were pretty intent on having well-fitted uniforms (at least in the early years of the war). At least he hasn’t been issued the pith helmet (tropical helmet, which would make him look like an explorer), as the early versions of the tropical uniform was inspired by British styles.



Mortar Combat

Three Gefreiter (lance corporals) using a light mortar, the 5 cm leichter Granatwerfer 36 (5 cm leGrW 36). It could lob a 0.9 kg grenade up to 520 meters, and provided fire support at platoon and company level. It was easy to transport, but over-engineered, with not enough of a range and too light a round. Still, it was useful in the early years of the war. Production was discontinued in 1941, and the weapon phased out as mortars were lost and ammunition stocks dwindled.

The soldiers wear greatcoats, the second guy from the right clad in the all-grey version introduced in 1940. His comrades wear the M1939, which has a dark green, more narrow collar. They all wear double decal helmets; the black-white-red national colors shield was eliminated in 1940, and the eagle decal in 1943. Still, helmets could still be seen sporting decals by the end of the war.