Into the great wide open

A column of Panzerkampfwagen IV tanks make its way across a featureless Soviet landscape. The dusty road is rutted by the passing of numerous cars and tanks. This photo is probably from 1941 or the early summer of 1942, and the vehicle on the left could be a Horch all-terrain car with a 2 cm anti-aircraft gun, towing an ammunition trailer. The markings appear to be those of Beobachtungs-Abteilung 27 (right side of trailer), combined with the symbol of Panzergruppe 3 (the “Hh”-like symbol) and the H-in-a-circle for an independent army unit. This poses a bit of a problem, though, as records show that Beo.Abt.27 was assigned to the 17th Army in 1941. Something doesn’t add up, but then the records are incomplete for many units during the war.

The Beobachtungs-Abteilung 27 was one of 40 artillery observation battalions, which used several means of locating enemy artillery for counter-battery fire, like observation of muzzle flashes and gun sound, and from balloons. They initially had an anti-aircraft platoon, which was removed after 1942. The battalion was transferred to the West in 1944, and surrendered to the Allies in the Netherlands in May 1945.

The problem with properly identifying the unit puzzled several of the members of an Eastern Front-themed FaceBook group. As many of them are very knowledgeable and accomplished researchers and authors, I’ll have to be content with that we might never know the exact circumstances regarding that photo. As it had been mounted in an album, it’s a prime example of what happens when a photo is removed from its context.

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Off to an uncertain fate

A long column of Soviet prisoners of war march to the rear in the hot summer weather of 1941. They have surrendered to the 10. Panzer-Division, and don’t know what fate they’ll meet when handed over to security units in the rear. The Wehrmacht treated the Soviet PoWs like the subhumans the Nazis regarded them as. The death rate was horrible, and was the result of part a murderous ideology, part insufficient logistics as the Germans weren’t prepared to deal with hundreds of thousands of prisoners.

The war on the Eastern Front took on a brutal character from the very beginning. Both sides committed massacres and killed prisoners. The ideological aspect aggravated it, as Nazism and Communism were competing for domination. Nazi Germany was worse by a few degrees, as it had a genocidal streak, but the USSR wasn’t exactly a shining example of humanism, either. The purges and terror against its own people began under Lenin, and Stalin cranked it up even more. Couple that with a tendency to view soldiers as a faceless resource, where millions of them were wasted because of orders not to retreat despite hopeless situations, and one can understand why the Eastern Front was such a horrible place. Hitler wasted the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, too, with “no retreat” orders. Add to this the plight of the civilian Soviet citizens and the Jews, and the result is the bloodiest war in history. Let’s hope it stays that.

At the crossroads

Summer of 1941, outside the town of Nevel in western Russia. The wreck of a Soviet T-26 tank stands forlornly by the roadside, while the German signposts signal who the new masters are. Nevel was captured by the Germans on 16 July 1941, and it took almost two years and three months before it was liberated.

The signs show the directions for a medical aid station, a prisoner of war collection point, an ammunition depot, a fuel depot, the headquarters of an antiaircraft regiment, a home leave supervision office, and many more. A collection of signs like this was called a Schilderwald – a forest of signs. It is an indication of the many and varied units and installations behind the front lines, where the system for the units at the front did what it could to support the fighting.

One would think that life behind the front was safe and cushy, and it was most of the time, but with mounting partisan activity, rear area units were prime targets for raids and sabotage. As the fortunes of war turned against the Germans, clerks and support personnel would find themselves sent to reinforce crumbling frontlines, clutching rifles not fired since basic training. In October 1943, the signs were kicked over by advancing Soviet troops, and replaced with similar signs in Russian.

Operation Barbarossa, day 3

Men and vehicles of the 35. Infanterie-Division advance eastwards on 24 June 1941, on the third day of the invasion of the Soviet Union. They move through the part of Poland that was occupied by the USSR in 1939, when Hitler and Stalin divided the country between them. The Division is heading towards Bialystok, where it will take part in the capture of the city three days later.

The 35. Infanterie-Division was raised in Karlsruhe on 1 October 1936, as part of the remilitarization of Germany. It was kept on the western border during the first months of the war, and got its baptism of fire in May 1940, when it broke through the fortifications in the Dutch-Belgian border area. It was kept in reserve for the second part of the campaign, and was later stationed on the Belgian coast, slated for participation in an eventual invasion of Britain. In April 1941, it was moved to the German-Soviet border in preparation for operation Barbarossa.

After the capture of Bialystok, it advanced with the rest of the 9th Army towards Smolensk, where it suffered heavy losses in a Soviet counterattack near the small town Dukhovshchina (northeast of Smolensk). The Division was part of Operation Typhoon, the advance on Moscow, but worsening weather and the Red Army counteroffensive saw it retreat to the area of Gzhatsk (renamed in 1968 as Gagarin), where it remained for all of 1942. 1943 and 1944 were spent in defensive battles, and when the Soviet offensive on the second anniversary of Operation Barbarossa hit the German frontlines, the 35. Infanterie-Division had to be pulled back for rest and refit after having had to break out of the Bobruisk encirclement.

More defensive battles ensued, and from mid-January 1945, the Division defended German soil in West Prussia. Part of the Division was evacuated west to Schleswig-Holstein, while the rest went into Soviet captivity.

Unternehmen Barbarossa

“Düsseldorf”. That was the code word that Operation Barbarossa was to commence on 22 June 1941, 77 years ago on this day. The photo above is from about two months later, when spearhead units from Panzergruppe 2 crossed the river Desna near the village of Slabyn in Ukraine. The vehicles in the photo might belong to the 17. Panzer-Division. It’s possible that it’s Slabyn going up in smoke in the background as the German vehicles make their way along the corduroy road laid across the marshy ground. The German invasion was a serious threat to the Soviet Union, but the further the German forces advanced, the longer the supply lines became, and two months of combat began to tell on men and materiel. Vehicles were getting worn, losses in officers and men had to be replaced with inexperienced reinforcements, fuel was always a problem. The video below shows how Operation Barbarossa developed, and how the invading forces – the largest in history so far – failed to reach their goals before the onset of winter.

 

The calm before the storm

Tag vor Einmarsch Russland” is written on the back of this photo. “The day before the invasion of Russia.” It’s somewhere in eastern Poland, and the date is 21 June 1941. After months of troop transports to the German-Soviet border, some units hidden, other conducting “field manoeuvres”, 3.8 million Axis soldiers stand poised for the invasion. This might be the last meal the men in the photo had before crossing the border at 3:15 AM next day.

The initial assault was a knock-out blow to the Red Army, and German infantry troops could advance up to 40-50 km in one day. We know how it ended, but in those summer months of 1941, the Wehrmacht seemed unstoppable. Four years later, perhaps two or three of the men in the photo were still alive.

Eye of the Army

Somewhere on the Eastern Front, probably in 1941. A Henschel Hs 126 reconnaissance aircraft stands on the harvested field used as a temporary airfield for take off and landing. The aircraft first saw action during the Spanish Civil War, and subsequently in most campaigns until 1942, where it operated in reconnaissance squadrons. Because of mounting losses, it was retired from frontline use and replaced by the more durable Focke-Wulf Fw 189. It had a crew of two, and could carry cameras or up to 150 kg of bombs. A total of 605 aircraft were built, and used for training and as glider tugs for the remainder of the war.