Looking for Private Ryan?

This photo is a recent acquisition, part of a small lot of photos from Norway. I took one look at it and thought: “That looks like France” – the countryside is decidedly not Norwegian. The thing that really tipped me off was the helmet carried by the guy on the right, which sports the camouflage paintjob seen on helmets worn by troops stationed in Normandy. Then I flipped the photo, and saw a scrawled note on the back with “Caen” in it. Bingo! Further analysis of the photo makes me pretty sure that the soldiers belong to a Luftwaffe Field Division, things like the cap worn by the soldier on the right, and the belt buckle on his comrade on the left. That, and the location, tells us that only one unit can come into question: The 16. Feld-Division (L).

The 16. Luftwaffen-Feld-Division was formed in December 1942 by the XIII. Fliegerkorps. It was transferred to the Heer (Army) in November 1943 and redesignated 16. Feld-Division (L). It was deployed in the Hague-Haarlem area of the Netherlands as an occupation force. In June 1944, the division was sent to Normandy under the control of Heeresgruppe B and deployed in the front lines on 2 July. The British launched an offensive the day after the division arrived and by late July, it had been effectively destroyed in the defense of Caen. The division was formally dissolved on 4 August 1944, its remaining infantry allocated to the 21. Panzer-Division, while other elements were used to resurrect the 16. Infanterie-Division. (More on the Luftwaffe Feld-Divisionen here.)

Some more observations on the guys in the photo: the one on the left has a leather map case, binoculars (probably 7×50), a magazine pouch with three magazines for his MP 40 (not visible), and a helmet possibly painted with a mix of dark yellow paint and sawdust (to reduce glare). His colleague wears a Zeltbahn as camouflage, 6×30 binoculars, and probably an MP 40. Both are NCOs, as there are no rank insignia on the sleeves.

Speaking of Normandy and the Allied landings there, this year marks 20 years since the premiere of Saving Private Ryan, the epic war movie directed by Steven Spielberg. Regarded as one of the great war movies, I’m not quite as impressed by it. While there are some powerful scenes in it, like the brilliantly staged beach landing, the movie has several weak spots. I’m not going to nit-pick on trivia like the fact that there were no Tiger tanks in the American area of Normandy by the time the action takes place, but I’ll address problems with the plot.

The basic premise of the movie is that it is discovered that all brothers Ryan are killed or missing in action around the same time. Mommy Ryan receives all the telegrams just a few days after the D-Day landings. By that time, most of the airborne units were still struggling to organize themselves after being scattered over a large area. In real life, it would’ve taken many days, if not weeks, before it would’ve been apparent that Private Ryan was indeed MIA. In the movie, the rescue operation is launched just a few days after D-Day.

One pivotal scene is when Captain Miller (played by Tom Hanks) decides that it’s important to knock out the German defenders of a damaged radar installation. The squad charging uphill against a machine gun position, the medic, Wade, is mortally wounded. Miller had a crack sniper, Jackson, in his squad – why not take out the MG crew at a distance? Or just bypass the Germans, as they weren’t a threat? The whole scene is just a way of introducing the surviving German soldier, “Steamboat Willie”, and setting the stage for the final scenes.

After finding the right Ryan, the surviving members of the squad (plus some airborne troops) are pitted against crack Waffen-SS troops in the fight for the fictious town of Ramelle. The Germans make just about every tactical mistake they could make; even considering the state of German troops by that time of the war, they wouldn’t have assaulted a town like that. Anyway, in the fighting, most of the squad meets a sticky end, including Captain Miller, who is shot by “Steamboat Willie”. “Willie”, who was let go by Miller earlier, and who has been picked up by the SS unit, clearly doesn’t know who he’s firing at. The interpreter, Upham, kills “Willie”. This is one of the morally ambigious problems with the story. Was Miller wrong to let “Willie” live? Should they’ve killed him straight away, the only good German being a dead German? Spielberg didn’t think this through, obviously.

Upham and Ryan are the only survivors, and the final scene has an aged and tearful Ryan by the graves of Miller and the others, surrounded by his family. Seven men died so he could live. Was it worth it? Mommy Ryan got one son back, and he apparently raised a fine family, but seven other mothers lost their sons, men who never got to form families and raise their kids. The movie leaves that question open, but I for one find that it’s debatable whether it was worth the sacrifice. The whole plot feels contrived, but at least Spielberg and Hanks got the inspiration to make “Band of Brothers”, that most excellent mini-series.

Advertisements

Three friends of mine

Berck-sur-Mer, France, summer of 1940. Three combat engineers from the 10. Panzer-Division take a look at a defused British Mk XIV (or possibly the upgrade, Mk XVII) naval mine, the contact horns removed and the 145 kg TNT charge lying next to it.

Mine warfare was very much a thing during WW2, all nations with coasts using naval mines both to protect their territory, to disrupt enemy shipping (as part of a blockade), and to sink enemy warships and merchant ships. There were several types of mines, the most common being the contact mine like the one above. That type was moored and submerged just under the surface, a mechanism adjusting the length of the mooring wire as the tide rose and fell. The mine had a number of horns, and when one of those was struck by a ship, the main charge exploded, the resulting damage crippling or sinking the ship. Other types of mines reacted to the magnetic field of a ship, or the sound of its propellers. Naval mines were the cause of loss of ships and lives long after the war, as unswept mines continued to be a danger to shipping.

Berck-sur-Mer was a small fishing town in the Pas-de-Calais region which had become a resort in the mid-19th century, when a hosptial for the treatment of tuberculosis was built there, the sea air thought to be beneficial for the patients. The town was damaged in 1944, as Allied air raids in preparation of D-Day hit German coastal installations, mainly as a diversion in order to draw German attention from the landing beaches in Normandy. The town recovered, and is now a holiday resort.

Killing field

At first glance, it seems like this PzKpfw IV Ausf D has just taken up positions at the edge of the field outside Monceaux in Aisne, France, May 1940. It might belong to the 6. Panzer-Division. Then one can spot the tell-tale signs of a tank that has been knocked out. The rubber on the road wheels has been completely burned off, there’s debris on the engine covers, and the wooden cleaning rods for the gun barrel have burned, too. The gunner’s hatch on the left side of the turret is open, which might indicate that he escaped, but the other hatches are closed, which could mean that at least four of the crew were killed. The tank probably fell victim to an anti-tank gun or another tank. This is one of the 97 PzKpfw IVs lost in the Campaign. It was probably salvaged and repaired, seeing action in the Soviet Union a year later, manned by a new crew.

Maas Effect

May, 1940: motorcycles, probably of a Kradschützen-Bataillon (“motorcycle rifle battalion”) belonging to a Panzer-Division, cross the Maas river on ferries built by the divisional combat engineer battalion. The Kradschützen were used for reconnaisance, able to range fast and far on their sidecar motorcycles. Later in the war, they were upgraded with armored cars.

Maas (or as it is also known by in French: Meuse) is a river that runs through France, Belgium and the Netherlands. It was a major hurdle for the German armies attacking on 10 May, 1940. Where they didn’t manage to capture bridges intact – in some cases through coup de mains by Brandenburg commandos – they had to assault across the river in rubber dinghies, sometimes under heavy fire.

Fast forward 4½ years. The Germans launch another offensive – the last major one – in the Ardennes. Crossing the Maas/Meuse was the first step towards the port city of Antwerpen and the objective to cut the Allied front in half. A German unit managed to come within sight of the river, but that was the furthest they got during the Battle of the Bulge. The Wehrmacht of 1944 – bled white after five years of war – couldn’t achieve what it did in 1940. Hitler’s Reich was done for.

Beached

The wreck of the French destroyer L’Adroit lies beached just outside Dunkirk, summer of 1940. L’Adroit (“the skilful one”) was built at A C de France shipyards at Dunkirk. She was laid down on 26 May 1925, launched on 1 April 1927 and completed 1 July 1929. She was in action during the first months of WW2, and was involved with the evacuation of the British and French forces from Dunkirk. On 21 May 1940 she was critically damaged in an attack by German Heinkel He 111 bombers. Captain Henri Dupin de Saint-Cyr beached the ship near the commune Malo-Les-Bains (part of Dunkirk and just a few kilometers from where she had been built).

Her magazines were crammed with ammunition. The French sailors, braving the danger, tried to offload the munitions before the fires which had broken out on board ignited them. Eventually, they were forced to abandon ship. When the fires reached the magazine, the resulting explosion severed the bow forward of the bridge. Miraculously, all of her crew were saved and they were used to man the shore batteries protecting Dunkirk until the surrender. All crewmembers survived.

Edited to add: The wreck of the L’Adroit is so iconic that it was used in the background of the movie poster for “Dunkirk” (2017).

The wreck of L’Adroit can be seen for a few seconds at 47:27 in this documentary.

One of millions

German soldiers are sight-seeing in Paris in the summer of 1940 after the victory over France. They have gathered around the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which is situated beneath the Arc de Triomphe. The remains of an unknown French soldier, chosen from eight “candidates”, was moved to the Arc on Armistice Day 1920, and interred in its final resting place on 28 January 1921. It has the first eternal flame lit in Europe since the fourth century. It burns in memory of the war dead who were never identified.

A ceremony is held at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier every 11 November on the anniversary of the armistice signed by the Entente Powers and Germany in 1918. The slab on top bears the inscription ICI REPOSE UN SOLDAT FRANÇAIS MORT POUR LA PATRIE 1914–1918 (“Here lies a French soldier who died for the fatherland 1914–1918”). After the interment of the Unknown Soldier, all military parades have avoided marching through the actual arch. The route taken is up to the arch and then around its side, out of respect for the tomb. Both Hitler in 1940 and de Gaulle in 1944 observed this custom.

Did they think of fathers and older brothers, who had fought the unknown French soldier? Did they reflect over their own mortality? Did any of the soldiers in the photo end up in war graves, or go missing in combat? The dead aren’t bothered by such thoughts; it’s the living who are worried about dying without fulfilling their lives.

Wehrmacht European Tour 1940

“Saarbrücken”, “Boulogne”, “Calais”, “Langemark”, “Dünkirchen” (Dunkirk), “Ipern” (Ypres), “Zeeland”… The names painted on the 9.7 ton Sd.Kfz. 7 towing a 15-cm schwere Feldhaubitze sFH 18 tells of the campaign in the West. I haven’t been able to identify the artillery battalion or regiment the howitzer and its crew belonged to. Artillery units are usually only mentioned in passing, and remain largely anonymous despite their importance on the battlefield.

The 15 cm caliber heavy field howitzer could lob a 43.5 kilo grenade 13 kilometers, making it useful for softening up enemy positions prior to assaults. Soviet artillery could fire at greater ranges, which put the sFH 18 at a definite disadvantage in case of counter-battery fire. At 5.5 tons, an artillery tractor like the Sd.Kfz. 7 was useful in moving it, but it could also be pulled by a team of horses. The gun crew rode in relative comfort, the halftrack being spacious enough to hold their personal kit, as well as the ammunition for the howitzer. In case of rain or snow, a canvas roof could be erected.

The gun crew in the photo probably travelled eastwards in 1941, attached to or part of a motorized division. Did they end up in the Courland Pocket, in the destruction of Army Group Center, or were their unit wiped out in Stalingrad? It’s impossible to know, but one thing is pretty sure: that road trip in the summer of 1940 was probably a fond memory once the harshness of the Eastern Front became evident.