Three friends of mine

Berck-sur-Mer, France, summer of 1940. Three combat engineers from the 10. Panzer-Division take a look at a defused British Mk XIV (or possibly the upgrade, Mk XVII) naval mine, the contact horns removed and the 145 kg TNT charge lying next to it.

Mine warfare was very much a thing during WW2, all nations with coasts using naval mines both to protect their territory, to disrupt enemy shipping (as part of a blockade), and to sink enemy warships and merchant ships. There were several types of mines, the most common being the contact mine like the one above. That type was moored and submerged just under the surface, a mechanism adjusting the length of the mooring wire as the tide rose and fell. The mine had a number of horns, and when one of those was struck by a ship, the main charge exploded, the resulting damage crippling or sinking the ship. Other types of mines reacted to the magnetic field of a ship, or the sound of its propellers. Naval mines were the cause of loss of ships and lives long after the war, as unswept mines continued to be a danger to shipping.

Berck-sur-Mer was a small fishing town in the Pas-de-Calais region which had become a resort in the mid-19th century, when a hosptial for the treatment of tuberculosis was built there, the sea air thought to be beneficial for the patients. The town was damaged in 1944, as Allied air raids in preparation of D-Day hit German coastal installations, mainly as a diversion in order to draw German attention from the landing beaches in Normandy. The town recovered, and is now a holiday resort.

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General Respect

General der Infanterie Viktor von Schwedeler, commander of the IV. Armeekorps, honoring Prussian soldiers killed in the Battle of Waterloo (1815) at the monument at La Belle Alliance, Belgium, June 1940. The photo was taken by an officer in Infanterie-Regiment 503, 290. Infanterie-Division.

He was born in St. Goarshausen in western Germany on 18 January 1885, and became a career officer from his teenage years, serving in various general staffs during WW1. He remained a staff officer during the lean years before the Nazi acquisition of power, and headed the Army Personnel Office 1933-38, eventually becoming a full general in 1938. Schwedeler was made commanding general of the IV. Army Corps following the Blomberg-Fritsch Affair of 1938, and remained with it during the campaigns in Poland, France, and the Soviet Union (Army Group South). He received the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross on 29 June 1940.

He was transferred to the Führerreserve in October 1942. On 1 March 1943 he was appointed commanding general of the 4th Military District in Dresden, a position he held until 31 January 1945. Nevertheless, he was still responsible for the measures after the bombing of Dresden on 13 February and 15 February 1945. He held no command during the last months of the war, and died in Freiburg on 30 October 1954.

 

I don’t know about you, but to me he sounds to have been a bit boring. Certainly not like the stereotypical German generals of American and British movies, like in this sketch by British comedians Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones:

 

Killing field

At first glance, it seems like this PzKpfw IV Ausf D has just taken up positions at the edge of the field outside Monceaux in Aisne, France, May 1940. It might belong to the 6. Panzer-Division. Then one can spot the tell-tale signs of a tank that has been knocked out. The rubber on the road wheels has been completely burned off, there’s debris on the engine covers, and the wooden cleaning rods for the gun barrel have burned, too. The gunner’s hatch on the left side of the turret is open, which might indicate that he escaped, but the other hatches are closed, which could mean that at least four of the crew were killed. The tank probably fell victim to an anti-tank gun or another tank. This is one of the 97 PzKpfw IVs lost in the Campaign. It was probably salvaged and repaired, seeing action in the Soviet Union a year later, manned by a new crew.

Maas Effect

May, 1940: motorcycles, probably of a Kradschützen-Bataillon (“motorcycle rifle battalion”) belonging to a Panzer-Division, cross the Maas river on ferries built by the divisional combat engineer battalion. The Kradschützen were used for reconnaisance, able to range fast and far on their sidecar motorcycles. Later in the war, they were upgraded with armored cars.

Maas (or as it is also known by in French: Meuse) is a river that runs through France, Belgium and the Netherlands. It was a major hurdle for the German armies attacking on 10 May, 1940. Where they didn’t manage to capture bridges intact – in some cases through coup de mains by Brandenburg commandos – they had to assault across the river in rubber dinghies, sometimes under heavy fire.

Fast forward 4½ years. The Germans launch another offensive – the last major one – in the Ardennes. Crossing the Maas/Meuse was the first step towards the port city of Antwerpen and the objective to cut the Allied front in half. A German unit managed to come within sight of the river, but that was the furthest they got during the Battle of the Bulge. The Wehrmacht of 1944 – bled white after five years of war – couldn’t achieve what it did in 1940. Hitler’s Reich was done for.

Norway, May 1940

German reinforcements arrive by ship to Norway, May 1940. The invasion the previous month had taken the Norwegians by surprise, but the mountainous terrain and the presence of British and French forces made the campaign hard-fought. Operation Weserübung was the German move to secure the port of Narvik in northern Norway, and thus the supplies of much-needed iron ore from the northern Swedish mines. Using Denmark as a springboard, the Germans launched a combined assault by air and sea, the first such operation in history.

The actions leading up to the invasion was like a game of chess, where the players couldn’t see the pieces of their opponent. Since the invasion of Poland, Britain and France had engaged Germany in limited operations. The Germans needed the iron ore from Sweden, which couldn’t be transported while the Baltic Sea was frozen over, as well as securing the passage to the Atlantic Ocean. The British wanted to deny the Germans the ore, and had plans to get neutral Norway to side with Britain and France. There was also a plan to send military help to Finland in the fight against the Soviet Union, using Narvik as the landing port and occupying the Swedish iron mines in the process. Two invading forces were heading towards Norway in early April…

The Allied force was delayed by rough weather, and Germans beat the Allies to it. Norway surrendered after two months of hard fighting, while the Allies evacuated as Germany had launched the attack on France, the Netherlands and Belgium.

I once talked to a man who had been an officer at a regiment outside Gothenburg, Sweden. He was about to train some soldiers on 9 April, when he was summoned to his commanding officer. “The Germans have attacked Denmark and Norway. Take a truck and buy every spade, saw, axe, and iron spit you can lay your hands on.” The Swedish Army was in such a bad state after years of cutbacks, that the gear needed in the field had been passed over in favor of ammunition, as funds were very limited. The Army, just about to demobilize after the raised state of preparedness following the German-Soviet attack on Poland and the Soviet attack on Finland, moved infantry units to the Swedish-Norwegian border. Lacking sufficient numbers of tanks, combat aircraft, and artillery, as well as training, Sweden was in no state to assist Norway.

Beached

The wreck of the French destroyer L’Adroit lies beached just outside Dunkirk, summer of 1940. L’Adroit (“the skilful one”) was built at A C de France shipyards at Dunkirk. She was laid down on 26 May 1925, launched on 1 April 1927 and completed 1 July 1929. She was in action during the first months of WW2, and was involved with the evacuation of the British and French forces from Dunkirk. On 21 May 1940 she was critically damaged in an attack by German Heinkel He 111 bombers. Captain Henri Dupin de Saint-Cyr beached the ship near the commune Malo-Les-Bains (part of Dunkirk and just a few kilometers from where she had been built).

Her magazines were crammed with ammunition. The French sailors, braving the danger, tried to offload the munitions before the fires which had broken out on board ignited them. Eventually, they were forced to abandon ship. When the fires reached the magazine, the resulting explosion severed the bow forward of the bridge. Miraculously, all of her crew were saved and they were used to man the shore batteries protecting Dunkirk until the surrender. All crewmembers survived.

Edited to add: The wreck of the L’Adroit is so iconic that it was used in the background of the movie poster for “Dunkirk” (2017).

The wreck of L’Adroit can be seen for a few seconds at 47:27 in this documentary.

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.