Twin-turreted tank trophy

The Soviet Union had several rather odd tanks at the beginning of the war, like the five-turreted T-35. The T-26 in the photo is the 1933 version, and sported two turrets armed with a DT 7.62 mm machine gun each. Their fighting value was dubious by the time of WW2, and the twin-turreted T-26s were replaced by single-turreted versions armed with a 45 mm gun. Despite being rather crap, they were still used by the end of the war on secondary fronts like Manchuria.

The clip below is from the excellent Finnish war movie “Talvisota” (“The Winter War”, 1989), where T-26 tanks attack Finnish positions. The flamethrower tank is an OT-26, a special version of the T-26. As you can see, determined fighters could knock out those with simple means.



Memories of Mennonites

Two soldiers posing with a sign in what’s today known as Morozivka, Zaporiz’ka oblast, Ukraine – what is the deal with that? To begin with, “Morosowo” was also known as “Hochfeld”. Why a German name on a place deep into the Soviet Union? Read on…

While German troops arrived in the region in mid-August 1941, the photo appears to have been taken after the first snows later that year. It’s also quite possible that the soldiers, looking rather fresh-faced, were new arrivals stationed to Morozivka in the spring of 1942.

The Mennonites is a Christian sect with many similarities with the more well-known Amish. They originated in the Netherlands in the 16th century, but some moved to the Vistula region in Poland in search of religious freedom and exemption from military service. As Prussia emerged as a local power, most of the Vistula Mennonite lands became part of the kingdom. They had to pay heavy fees in order to keep the exemption from military service. In 1763, the Empress Catherine the Great invited all Europeans to settle in various parts of Russia, and the Vistula Mennonites, not happy with the situation in Prussia, heeded the call and began settling in 1789 in lands won from the war with the Ottoman Empire.

Hardworking farmers, the Mennonites mostly kept to themselves, happy to enjoy religious freedom. Things changed with the government’s 1870 plan of Russification of the diverse ethnic parts of the Empire. Afraid to lose their status as pacifists, many Mennonites chose to emigrate to the United States and Canada. Whole villages moved off, and the Russian government, not wanting to lose the best farmers in the Empire, offered an alternative to armed service in 1880. In the chaos following WW1 – the fall of the Czar, the Bolshevik power grab, and the Russian Civil War – the Mennonite communities suffered. More emigrated, mostly to North America. With the Communist collectivization of farms, Mennonite lands were confiscated.

The Mennonites were part of a greater German-speaking population known as the Volga Germans, who had colonized the area following Catherine’s decree. During Stalin’s Great Purge in 1937-38, German-speakers were targeted and in many cases deported to Siberia. When the invading German Army entered the region in 1941, it was seen as a liberator, at least initially. Some Mennonites went on to serve in the Wehrmacht, some voluntarily, some not. Following the war, about a million ethnic Germans, among them Mennonites, were forcibly deported to Siberia, where 200,000 – 300,000 died from starvation and exposure. When Stalin died in 1953, his draconian policies were rescinded, but the German-speaking communities were smashed for good.

So that’s the story behind the sign held by those soldiers in the winter of 1941-42.


Karl, where is my dud?

The Volkhov Front, east of Leningrad, autumn of 1941. An Oberfeldwebel stands next to a 21 cm shell fired by a Soviet Br-17 heavy siege gun. Luckily for him and his unit, the high explosive shell, loaded with some 20 kilos of TNT, was a dud. Even if it hadn’t exploded, it was still dangerous, and had to be removed carefully, or destroyed through a controlled explosion. A task for people with strong nerves…

In 1989, my rifle company participated in a refresher manoeuver together with the rest of the brigade. A couple of days were spent on a artillery firing range. As we made our way through the broken terrain, we saw several unexploded 155 mm artillery shells. After spotting the first one, we took great care where we placed our feet… Nothing like some duds of unknown volatility to sharpen your senses. There were no mishaps, but the exercise was eventful in other aspects.

Unstoppable advance

A mittlere geländegängige Personenkraftwagen Kfz. 12 (medium cross-country passenger car) makes its way across a temporary bridge. A dispatch rider on a BMW R12 is following. It’s the summer of 1941, Operation Barbarossa is in full swing, and the retreating Red Army has blown the road bridge in the hope of slowing the German advance. A bridging unit from a pioneer battalion has thrown a temporary bridge across the shallow river, a task that probably took about half an hour. As the river appears to be rather narrow, no pontoons are needed, something that speeds up the bridge-building. The car has a swastika flag across the hood as a means of making identification from the air easier, lessening the risk of attacks by own aircraft. “Friendly fire isn’t”, as someone put it.

The first, heady weeks of Operation Barbarossa saw German units drive deep into Soviet territory. Hundreds of thousands of prisoners were taken, and nothing appeared to be able to stop millions of German soldiers that had crossed the border on 22 June. A few months later the Wehrmacht experienced a severe reality check…

Wreckage of war

Sommer of 1941, somewhere in the western parts of the Soviet Union. In front of a knocked out Soviet BT-7 tank lie the cadaver of the horse that pulled the wrecked wagon and the body of the man who drove it. The German soldiers appear unaffected by the sight, but anyone reading memoirs by veterans from any country realize that death soon became so commonplace that it took much to make them react. Dead children, women and animals usually stirred up more emotions than yet another killed enemy. Even dead soldiers from their own side didn’t affect them much, unless the bodies showed signs of torture, execution, or if they had been mutilated. That often resulted in an unwillingness to take any prisoners. War has a brutalizing effect, and most soldiers could only deal with by becoming emotionally numb. Those who survived the war had often to face their demons as post-traumatic stress disorder caught up with them. Most never told their families what they had lived through, taking their bad memories with them to the grave.

Under new management

An airfield somewhere on the Eastern Front during Operation Barbarossa, summer of 1941. Some Junkers Ju 88s are parked on the edge of the field, most likely getting prepared for the next mission. There’s a placename scrawled on the back of the photo, but it was hard to see what it said. Luckily, some of the members of the Axis History Forum (nichte, history1, and GregSingh) could help me, and it appears like the airfield is one of the nine outside Minsk in Belarus which were used by the Germans. The previous owners have been evicted, leaving just the mangled wrecks of biplanes, probably destroyed on the ground on the first day of the offensive. The Soviets lost about 2,000 planes on that first day, a devastating blow to the USSR’s airforce.

The Germans captured Minsk four days later, so it’s possible the photo is from the end of June 1941. Both Soviets and Germans usually operated from grass airfields, bases with concrete runways being somewhat of a luxury. A Ju 88 needed at least 530 meters for take off, so the field above appears to be sufficient. The periods of mud in autumn and spring presented a problem, though, making it harder for take off and landing. Many planes were lost because of the mud, adding yet another danger for the aircrews on the Eastern Front.

Scorched earth, blown dam

August, 1941. An unknown German soldier takes a photo of the huge hydroelectric dam spanning the Dnieper river at Zaporizhia in Ukraine. It has been blown up by NKVD agents, acting on orders from Stalin. As the Red Army retreated, they practiced a scorched earth policy, leaving as little as possible for the advancing Germans to use. The middle of the more than 760 meters wide dam has been dynamited, disrupting power generation for years to come.

Construction of the dam began in 1927, taking five years to complete. It was one of the largest in the world, producing 560 megawatts and powering the industrial centers at Zaporizhia, Kryvy Rih and Dnipro (Russian: Zaporozhye, Krivoi Rog & Dniepropetrovsk), among them the electricity-consuming aluminium industry, which was vital for Soviet aviation. The dam was the pride of Soviet industrialization.

The destruction of the dam caused a catastrophe that was covered up by Soviet authorities. With no regard for the people living downstream, the demolition team destroyed the dam. The resulting tidal wave hit villages and settlements, killing many thousands of civilians. A low estimate is set at 20,000 victims, but some historians believe that as many as 100,000 could’ve been killed. The wave also killed a number of Red Army officers who were crossing the river as the wall of water surged forth.

When the Germans retreated in 1943, they destroyed parts of the dam and the powerhouses. Reconstruction began after the war ended, and the dam resumed the generation of electricity in 1950. There is no official monument over the victims of its destruction.