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.

Bring on the light show

The sky over a nameless Soviet town is lit up by searchlights and anti-aircraft fire. Nighttime Red Army Air Force raids kept the Germans on their toes, especially the “Night Witches”, female pilots who in the cover of darkness made life miserable for enemy troops. The town in the photo is protected by AA guns, mainly 2.0 cm automatic cannons and the famous 8.8 cm gun, putting up quite a light show as well as a bloody racket. It is doubtful the anti aircraft gunners brought down any enemy aircraft, but I guess few in that town got a full night’s sleep.


Five men from an antitank gun platoon posing for their buddy with the camera, taking a break from cutting wood, somewhere on the Eastern Front, spring of 1942. All of them enjoy a pipe of tobacco, using pipes with small bowls typical of the time. The daily ration was seven cigarettes or two cigars, and as the war had stopped trade with the US, the smoother Virginia tobacco was replaced with the stronger Turkish equivalent. The pipes had wooden bowls, or bowls made from bakelite with a clay lining, with room for a cigarette’s worth of tobacco. Many soldiers eked out their tobacco rations with tobacco sent from home, or the rougher Russian makhorka, which is usually described as particularly vile.

Using a pipe had some advantages. It was less susceptible to rain, didn’t need rolling paper, and the glow was far less conspicuous when standing guard (a good sniper could spot the glow from a cigarette and aim five centimeters higher…). While smoking was officially discouraged in the Third Reich, reality called for a steady supply of tobacco, not least for frontline morale reasons. Non-smokers used to trade their cigarettes for chocolate, biscuits and other goodies. If a soldier got hold on American cigarettes, like Lucky Strikes, he had some hard currency in his hands. Ah, the many aspects of nicotine addiction!

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…

Leave checklist

Every once in a while, a soldier might be lucky enough to get leave for a week or two. He couldn’t just jump on the first train, though. No, as this placard indicates, there was much to think of.

(My German is pretty poor, and Google Translate isn’t as precise as one could wish for, so any corrections are welcome. The translation is as close as I can make it. “Heimat” is hard to translate, though, as the German meaning is deeper than just “home”.)

Preparation for going to the home country
1. Turn in ammunition.
2. Delousing.
3. Check documents, train assignment and stamps at the command post.
4. Pick up travel rations.
5. Exchange money.
6. Visit the barber if you wish.
7. Message home through the camp post office: “Mommy, I’m coming!”
8. Go to the trains about 1½ hours in advance before entraining and assignment [of seat?].
9. All with good humor, proper behavior and enjoyment of the homeland.

If I’m not mistaken, German soldiers brought their personal weapons while on leave, but they couldn’t bring any ammunition. Delousing was important, as no soldier wanted to bring any vermin home to their families (or suffer them at all). Having the travel documents in order was of utmost importance, as the military police could check the papers any time. If the papers weren’t in order, the soldier could be in for a hard time. Travel rations were needed, and soldiers on leave were issued rationing coupons to ensure that they got what they were entitled to. Getting a haircut and a shave was always nice after the delousing. Alerting the family back home that one was coming was common courtesy, while going to the train with a good margin was just common sense. Finally, not making an embarrassment of yourself while on leave and in uniform is still good advice.