“Never get involved in a land war in Asia.”

A Zündapp KS750 motorcycle and sidecar combination makes its way through the slush and mud of a dismal Russian road, probably in late winter/early spring of 1943. The motorbike rider is interestingly enough wearing a Soviet tanker’s padded crash helmet, instead of the regular steel helmet. It provides better protection and more warmth than the helmet and “Oma”, the tube-shaped, knitted head covering issued with the winter uniform.

The road is marked with poles, which helped vehicles to stay on course in the deep snows and blizzards of winter. The horses and infantry further up the road probably enjoyed the road even less than the MC rider. The German way of warfare relied on good roads and short distances, which made the campaigns in Europe a success. In the USSR, the poor roads and great distances, combined with the harsh winters and mud seasons, made the German Army lose momentum.

Signs of the time

At a road crossing near Bolkhov in Russia stands a Schilderbaum, a “sign tree”. Obscure signs with symbols, numbers and abbreviations point to the left or the right. I had to check the photo with a magnifying glass, and a couple of signs give a hint about the time. One shows the symbol of the 3. Panzer-Division as used in the summer of 1943, and the other that of the 17. Panzer-Division. Both were in the area for the Battle of Kursk, which dates the photo to June or July, 1943. Another sign shows the field post number of Field Bakery Company 665, a slightly less well-known unit. At least they had fresh bread.

Scout camp (WW2 style)

Officers and soldiers of the Stabskompanie – headquarters company – of the 12. Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung (armored reconnaisance battalion), 12. Panzer-Division enjoying a game of cards in a forest, probably outside Orel, Russia, summer of 1943. The recon unit was responsible for scouting ahead of the main units, using armored cars and gathering intelligence. The division spent most of the year there, participating in the Battle of Kursk in July. By the end of the year, it transferred to Army Group North, where it eventually became trapped in the Courland Pocket, surrendering in May, 1945.

This photo has just a name scribbled on the back, but the license plate of the car to the left is legible (WH 430495), and an identification request on the Axis History Forum resulted in a reply where the vehicle’s unit was identified. There are many ways of researching photos, unit symbols, field post numbers, and license plates being useful identifiers.

A Green Devil

France, 1943. Willy, a young Fallschirmjäger (paratrooper) poses for a photograph. On the back, he writes a few loving lines to his girlfriend, Dora. He’s in France for training, and belongs to either the 1. or the 2. Fallschirm-Jäger-Division. His shoulderboards sport the loops of an Unteroffizieranwärter, an NCO candidate. By this stage of the war, the Germans usually deployed the paratroopers as elite infantry; after the heavy losses during the fight for Crete in 1941, Hitler was very hesitant to risk them again. Still, they were tough soldiers, and got the nickname “the Green Devils”. Willy’s tan uniform has the baggy pants of the paratroopers, and his sidecap is set at a jaunty angle, but the only medal is the Reichssportabzeichen, the Reich Sports Badge. And no, he isn’t one-armed – he holds the left arm on his back. I bet Dora was a bit worried for a minute, though.