A chip off the old Bloch

“Wir fliegen gegen Engelland mit einem abgeschossenen Franzose.” “We fly to England with a downed Frenchie.” German soldiers have fun with a grounded Bloch MB.210 bomber, summer of 1940. The prototype of the boxy and unappealing MB.210 first flew in 1934, and the first production aircraft in 1936. It was underpowered, the engines prone to overheating, and had to have the engines exchanged. Less than 300 were built, ten of them sold to Romania. When the Germans invaded France in 1940, the twelve bomber squadrons equipped with the MB.210 were in the middle of reorganization, where outdated aircraft were to be retired. The slow aircraft saw some action, primarily as a night bomber, but by the armistice there were only 119 flyable aircraft left. The Romanian air force used it on the Eastern Front, but appears to have retired the surviving aircraft in 1942. The Bloch MB.210 is a testament to the rapid development of aircraft in the 1930s. Planes that were state of the art in the beginning of the decade were obsolete by the end of it, and when the war broke out, the development was sped up even more. World War 2 was a period of rapid technological advances.

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Over the mountains

This photo presents a puzzle: those are the graves of German Gebirgsjäger (mountain rangers), but the helmets on top of the crosses are the paratrooper model. The photo was taken in 1940 near Narvik, Norway, and that gives us a clue…

The fighting for Narvik proved to be harder than the Germans expected. Getting reinforcements to the area was a challenge, but some Gebirgsjäger units got some parachute training, and where dropped over the area on 23 May 1940. On 28 May, a combined force of two French Foreign Legion battalions and a Norwegian battalion, supported by the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, landed near Narvik. The 11. Kompanie, Gebirgs-Jäger-Regiment 137, belonging to the 2. Gebirgs-Division and commanded by Oberleutnant Erich Schwaiger, rushed from the area of Bjørnfjell to Forsneset to counter the landing force. Artillery fire from the Royal Navy ships inflicted heavy casualties on the Austrian mountain rangers. Schwaiger was killed together with several of his men, among them Gefreiter (Private) Fritz Wild and Gefreiter Johann Grübler. The Allied force captured Narvik, but due to the German offensive in France, the French and British withdrew ten days later. Narvik and Norway were in German hands on 10 June.

The two soldiers in the graves in the photo (the third one was buried without a name on the cross, perhaps because he couldn’t be identified) were Fritz Wild, born on 7 December 1916 in Kapfenberg, Austria, and Johann Grubler, born on 2 September 1916, presumably in Austria. Neither of them got to see their 24th birthday. Their remains were later moved to the war cemetery in Narvik.

While researching the photo, I had uncovered most of the information, but I googled a bit more and came across this blog post by military historian Lars Gyllenhaal. The photo in that post appears to be from the same roll of film, as save for a few spots and blemishes, it’s identical.

A brief skirmish

Somewhere on the Western Front, May or June 1940. A column of German vehicles stands to the side of a road, while a couple of Panzerkampfwagen I Ausf.B sit in the field to the left. A house goes up in flames, perhaps a knocked out point of resistance for a group of enemy soldiers. Judging by the soldiers standing unconcerned in the middle of the road, the fighting has moved on. Forward elements are up ahead, securing the road for continued advance.

When we think of war and battles, we tend to think of big clashes and intense fighting. In many cases it was more like this – skirmishes, temporary halts while units to the side or up ahead engage the enemy, passing signs of combat like burning buildings, wrecked vehicles, the bodies of friends and foes. I’ve read accounts by soldiers who didn’t fire their weapons for months. As a soldier, the overall situation can be confusing, your knowledge restricted to what you can see and whatever the officers tell you. That’s why I found a posthumous memoir by a German soldier, “Eastern Inferno” by Hans Roth, a bit suspicious. It’s an intense account, and many details check out, but his grasp on the overall strategic situation hints at later editing or additions by the editor. If he had been a staff officer, then his knowledge of the identity of adjacent units and their objectives would’ve been logical, but hardly as a man in the ranks. It differed noticeably from the 30 or so memoirs by veterans I’ve read. In short, it’s a bit too good to be true.

Someone said that war is “months of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror”. For the men at the forefront of a campaigning army, the spells of boredom were shorter, but combat could still be very much a case of “hurry up and wait”. In mobile warfare, you seldom know what’s behind the corner or the next bend of the road, and that goes for the men in the photo above.

“Now you see me, now you don’t”

German officers are sight-seeing along the Maginot Line, summer of 1940. The strange-looking fortification is a pop-up turret housing a 75 mm cannon. The idea was to provide as small a target as possible, raising the turret when the gun was ready to fire. It was part of the massive line of fortifications and bunkers along the Franco-German border, intimidating enough to deter any German frontal assault. It is said that generals fight the last war, but it is more a question of what conclusions they draw from it. The French didn’t want a repeat of the grueling trench war of 1914-18, so they aimed at stopping the Germans on the border by building static defenses. The Germans didn’t want a repeat either, but their solution was to become more mobile. With hindsight, it was obvious: if there’s an obstacle, you take an alternate route. The French military planners counted on Belgium and the hilly, heavily forested Ardennes to protect their northern flank, and that the large army would be mobilized in time and ready to fend off the smaller German army. Unfortunately for France, the Germans didn’t want to play by their rules…

We know the result. The Maginot Line was bypassed and only saw some action when the fate of France was already sealed. It was used by the Germans, and after WW2 some of the fortifications became command centers. It was finally abandoned in the mid-1960’s. By then, nuclear weapons had become the new deterrent.

Manoeuvre_tourelle

How the pop-up gun turret worked. Source: Wikipedia.

The ruins of Rotterdam

The shell of the Laurenskerk in Rotterdam is one of the few structures still standing after the devastating German bomb raid of 14 May 1940. The entire medieval city center of the old port city was wiped out in fires, and it was most likely due to a communications mishap which was to have far-reaching consequences.

The German army invaded the Netherlands on 10 May 1940, and three days later troops stood outside Rotterdam, commanded by General Rudolf Schmidt. The Dutch garrison put up a spirited defense, and Schmidt planned a combined arms operation for the next day. He requested air support by Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive-bombers, but got Heinkel He 111 bombers instead, which were more suited for area bombing. In the negotiations with the defenders, the threat of destruction of the city was used to make the Dutch Colonel Pieter Scharroo surrender it. The negotiations were still underway when the bombers appeared in the sky. The Luftwaffe commander on the ground, General Kurt Student, tried to call off the attack, but the bombers were never reached by the order to abort the attack. Bombs began to rain down, and the crowded, cluttered medieval cityscape was soon ablaze. The fires continued well into the next days.

Some 900 people were killed, and the city surrendered. A result of the raid, where initial reports in Allied media claimed that 30,000 civilians had been killed, was that the Royal Air Force abandoned their policy to avoid civilian targets. The air war took a more brutal turn, with hundreds of thousands of victims to die around the world in the following five years. In an ironic twist of fate, US Army Air Force bombers mistakenly bombed a civilian neighborhood on 31 March 1943 while attacking German targets, killing up to 400 Dutch civilians. That raid was hushed down for 50 years, though.

The rebuilding of Rotterdam began during the war, and while a few official buildings were restored, including the Laurenskerk seen in the photo, no attempt was made to bring back the old city. Modern buildings now dominate central Rotterdam, but the memories of the fateful attack still remain.

No room for the rubber duck

Taking a bath in the field can be a challenge. Anyone who has been in the army, or even just gone hiking, can attest to that. Rinsing off the sweat, dirt and dust after a long march is one of the great feelings one can experience as a soldier. This German soldier, a guy named Albert Schneider, must have a talent for contortionism, as he has managed to fit into a small tub in order to freshen up. It’s a miracle there’s room for the water… The location of the tub is near Dunkirk in northern France, the time late May or early June, 1940. Perhaps he’s singing “In my Bathtub I’m the Captain”, a popular song from 1937, while making his ablutions. I know I would.

 

The battle is over, but there is no peace save for the dead.

Jean Lallé. Joseph Perrot. Pierre Chassin. For them and eight more French soldiers, not only the Battle of France is over, but also their lives. On 25 June 1940, France capitulated after 46 days of war. 85,000 soldiers had been killed, an average of over 1,800 per day.

I found some personal details on one of the soldiers, Joseph Perrot, buried in the third grave from the left. He was born on 30 June 1912 in Doubs, Franche-Comté (in south-eastern France). Joseph was the sixth of seven siblings, the third son of Jules and Emma Perrot. An older sister born in 1910 died the same year he was born, but the other children survived into adulthood. His father was a livestock trader. After completing school and his military service, he most likely found a job, perhaps in his father’s business, and could marry Valentine Estelle Roux in 1935. The young couple appears to have had no children. Joseph’s regiment, the 60th Infantry Regiment, was mobilized when Germany attacked on 10 May 1940. It was sent north to the front with the rest of the 13th Infantry Division, but despite their best efforts, Joseph and his army friends in the 2nd Company were killed in a battle near the village of Bergicourt in Picardie, south-west of Amiens. Their division had contributed to the success of Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force, by slowing down the German advance. Joseph Perrot died just 23 days before his 28th birthday. He is commemorated on a monument to the war dead in La Chenalotte.

People with little knowledge of WW2 in general and the Battle of France in particular make fun of the French effort. “Their tanks had one forward gear and four reverse gears.” “What is the first thing the French Army teaches at basic training? How to surrender in at least 10 languages.” And so on, ad nauseam. Ha bloody ha. The failure of France to withstand the German invasion was mainly due to a command and communications structure that couldn’t cope with the more flexible German approach, plus the overreliance on the Maginot Line, the line of fortifications the Germans circumvented by attacking through Belgium. The British should be the last people to poke fun at the French, as French soldiers bought time with their lives while the Brits slunk away across the Channel. “The Miracle at Dunkirk” hadn’t been possible unless French units had slowed down the Germans, and they were enough of a threat to the German flank to make Hitler issue the order to stop the advance.

Less than 22 years after WW1, which cost France over a million dead, there was another national trauma. Think of soldiers like Joseph Perrot, and honor them by not telling stupid jokes about their perceived lack of bravery.