Lost in the mists of time

A 21-cm-Mörser 18 fires a 113 kilogram grenade during the Battle of France, 1940. The back of the photo has a note saying “In Frankreich 1940 1./736“. This give a clue as to the identity of the artillery unit, which appears to be the first battery of the schwere Artillerie-Abteilung 736 (mot). The motorized heavy artillery battalion was an independent unit, as were the other 140 heavy artillery battalions in the German army. While “Mörser” translates as “mortar”, the gun is actually a howitzer; Mörser was the designation used by the Germans for howitzers of 20 cm caliber and greater.

The 736th is an obscure unit. It was raised on 10 December 1939, and originally equipped with captured Czech howitzers, but just a couple of days later it got the 21-cm-Mörser 18 instead. As evident, it took part in the Battle of France in 1940, then in 1941 it fought in the USSR as part of Army Group Center. It probably surrendered to the Red Army in 1945. That there’s little known about many units isn’t unusual. Records, war diaries and other documents were lost during or after the war. Some were destroyed before a unit surrendered, while those that fell in enemy hands could end up in some archive, were they became promptly forgotten. This poses a challenge to historians, to say the least.

In my search for information, I came across just one individual associated with the unit. A Hauptmann (Captain) Walter Wreth was awarded the German Cross in Gold, a medal ranking between the Iron Cross 1st class and the Knight’s Cross, on 14 July 1944. It’s possible that he’s identical to a Walter Wreth born in 1915, and who passed away in 1982 in Bremen. While three other soldiers with that name died during the war or in captivity just after the war, none of them were of the correct rank.

So, this is probably the only photo online featuring the schwere Artillerie-Abteilung 736. That says something about how frail the historical record can be.

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Rubbing it in

A military band marches down the Champs-Élysées in Paris. It’s early November 1940, and the Germans have occupied Paris for almost five months. Having a band playing marches in the heart of an occupied capital is a way of asserting dominance. One march which was played during the victory parade in June was the Pariser Einzugsmarsch, the Paris Entry March, a piece hailing back to around 1800 and the Napoleonic wars. It was played there in 1814, and perhaps again in 1871.

Interestingly, tens of thousands of French volunteers served in the Wehrmacht, and another 20,000 served in the Waffen-SS and associated units. French SS volunteers were among the last defenders of Berlin. After the war, many of those who survived were sentenced to prison terms, and in cases of especially serious collaboration (for example leading to the death of French nationals) capital punishment.

Today, people like to think of the occupation years as a fight between valiant French patriots and evil German occupiers, but the situation was far more complicated and messy. For the Parisians, their least problem was a military band blaring away.

Lost in France

Roubaix, France, late May or June, 1940. A knocked out Infantry Tank Mk.I rests in the ruins of a house, a German soldier taking a look at the wreck. The photo is captioned “Volltreffer in Roubaix” (“Direct hit in Roubaix”). The Infantry Tank Mk.I is often referred to in post-war literature as the “Matilda I”, even if there’s scant evidence that the name was used before 1941. The “Matilda II” was a quite different tank, and not an improved version of the Infantry Tank Mk.I.

The British developed the infantry tank concept after World War 1. “Cruiser” tanks were supposed to be fast and capable to take on similar enemy tanks, while infantry tanks were intended to move at a slow pace, providing machinegun support for advancing infantry. They had heavier armor, but were armed with machineguns. The Infantry Tank Mk.I was an 11-ton, 2-man light tank armed with a 7.7 or 12.7 mm machinegun, with a top speed of 13 km/h. By 1940, the concept proved to be flawed, and those of the 140 tanks produced that weren’t lost in France were withdrawn from frontline use and used for training instead.

The town of Roubaix lies in northern France on the border to Belgium, just north-east of Lille. In May 1940, the area was held by the British 4th Division, and protected by the so called “Gort Line”, a series of bunkers, pillboxes and anti-tank ditches built during the “Phoney War”. When the Germans attacked Belgium, the Netherlands and France on 10 May 1940, the rapid advance forced the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to retreat. On the night of 27/28 May, the 4th Division vacated Lille and withdrew towards Dunkirk, leaving the defense to French troops.

It’s hard to find details on the fighting in or around Roubaix, not even what unit which was there with the Matilda tanks, but they were probably from the Royal Tank Regiment. The 4th and 7th Battalion RTR formed the 1st Tank Brigade, which was equipped with Matilda tanks, and part of the BEF. There were also tanks assigned to the various infantry divisions, supposedly from the 1st Tank Brigade. Only two Matildas made it to Dunkirk, where they were blown up by their crews. The Germans, who often adopted captured enemy tanks, didn’t use the Matilda I. Just two complete tanks are what’s left of the 140 that were built.

End of the road

The Battle of France is over, and a German recovery crew inspects a broken-down Renault Char B1 bis. They travel the French countryside in a captured Chenillette, marked with German crosses. The place is near Sacy le Petit, about 50 km north-north-east of Paris. Will the tank be repaired and pressed into German service, or will it be scrapped, the turret used in the defenses along the Channel coast?

When I got this photo, I looked for a name on the tank, as the crews named their tanks. Sure enough, on the front glacis there’s “BUGEAUD”, the name of a French field marshal in the Napoleonic wars. Going to the excellent Chars-Francais website, it was a breeze finding the story behind the fate of this particular tank.

The tank was numbered 534, serving in the 3rd company of the 28e BCC (28th Battle Tank Battalion). “Bugeaud” was crewed by:

Commander: Aspirant Maingard
Driver: Caporal-chef Collet
Assistant driver: Caporal Paul Trompette
Radioman: Caporal Sturbeaux
Mechanic: Chasseur Trémini

“Bugeaud” was involved in the battles north of the river Oise, 8-13 June, 1940. The reconstituted French 1st Armored Division faces German forces. The Germans appear to be everywhere, and the tanks are ordered to help the infantry withdraw. Aspirant Maingard spots a dozen German tanks and fires on them. The 47 mm gun jams, and the tank withdraws from the action. His CO, lieutenant Pavillon, congratulates Maingard and tells him to have a drink at the local bistro to calm his nerves. The gun repaired, “Bugeaud” is engaged in a second battle that day, and the unit manages to knock out or immobilize ten German tanks. This buys the French a short reprieve, but the units in the area lack support, and it is decided that they should withdraw. The next day, 9 June, “Bugeaud” takes an R 35 tank in tow. They come as far as Sacy-le-Petit when “Bugeaud” breaks down and her crew is forced to abandon the tank.

What became of the crew? They were probably taken prisoners of war and spent the next five years in Germany, unless they managed to join the Free French Forces. As for the tank, its further fate is unknown.

Grand Theft Bicycle

Troops biking through the ruins of a French town, 1940. The bicycles are a mixed lot, which make me suspect that they were “liberated” by regular infantry in order to improve mobility. While it might look a bit funny too modern eyes, bicycle-mounted units were a part of many armies back in WW2, and they were still a mode of transport when I did my military service in 1986-87. Bicycles increase the range; a cyclist can go up to five times further than a walking person, expending the same amount of energy. Back in the 1930s and 40s, bicycles were important vehicles for many people as a means of getting to and from work, etc, especially during the war when fuel was rationed. Even today, it is a common means of transport in countries like Denmark and the Netherlands.

The Wehrmacht used several millions of bicycles, many of them standard issue Army bikes (we used to call the Swedish Army bikes “heavy all-terrain attack bikes”). There was still great demand for more bikes, and the German Army confiscated millions of bikes from the civilian population in the occupied countries during the war. On 6 October, 1944, there was a general order to seize all bikes in the Netherlands, Denmark, and those parts of Italy still controlled by the Germans. This caused resentment, and some Dutch still refer to Germans as “bike-thieves”. The Wehrmacht, short on motor vehicles and fuel, needed the bikes, but many of them were a bit worse for wear after several years of war, rationing, and rubber shortages; when tires and tubes were worn out, strips of cloth and even wood was used to make “tires”.

Late in the war, German troops could be seen biking to the front, carrying a couple of Panzerfaust single-use light anti-tank weapons clipped to the front fork. While they had an effective anti-tank weapon, the bikes were a sad reminder that the Third Reich had been vastly out-produced when it came to trucks and tanks.

The good old times?

An officer, probably in an artillery unit, takes a swig from a bottle of booze in France, summer of 1940. Despite losses of some 45,000 soldiers killed or missing in action, it was still nothing compared to the casualties in a single battle 25 years earlier. The campaign was a smashing success, and the public back home in Germany was in a patriotic fervor. Surely this meant that Germany would be great again?

Looking back on World War 2, it’s easy to see which side to pick if one had been alive back then and of age to serve. There’s some nostalgic notion that people showed more solidarity, and that they weathered the hard times with cheer and a hope for a better tomorrow. Life seemed simpler, the choices clearer, the world more black and white. Some people caught up in the complex world of today look back at those years with a certain longing. Movies feed the romantic view that WW2 was a rough time, but also a great time to be alive, and anyone playing WW2 computer games can be heroes who, if killed, just need to load the latest save and have another go at that machine gun position. It was the time of the Greatest Generation.

Or was it? Sure, many of the soldiers who volunteered to fight for their beliefs were brave, and those who had little choice, being conscripted, showed great courage in many situations, too. Opposing the Axis powers was the right thing to do, regardless of personal reasons to fight. On the other hand, the world in the 1930s and 40s wasn’t a nice place. Some aspects were good and deserve to be revived, but in general it’s clear that most people are better off today, especially women and minorities. It was a time that would be exciting to visit as a time traveler, but also one that most of us would be happy to return from. Besides, the 1940s didn’t have wifi.

Followers of my blog may be excused if they think that I would’ve liked to fight on the German side, at least if you haven’t read what I write. It’s a mistake to believe that just because one has an interest in a certain nation at a certain time in history, one would like to live in it during that time. While I have some equipment that allows me to reenact a German soldier if I wanted to (not that I have done it), I think that given the choice and a time machine, I would like to serve in the US Navy in the Pacific. I don’t know why I have a soft spot for that particular setting, but there it is. My father served in the Swedish Navy in the mid-1950s, and my father-in-law served in the US Navy in the Pacific right after the war had ended (I had my preferences long before I married, though). I guess there’s something about warships and the tropical setting, coupled with the epic nature of the whole campaign in the Pacific.

So there you have it – perhaps I should get a bunch of US photos and blog about them instead. That might be a future project, but for now I’ll stick with the Germans.

The Light Side of the Armored Force

France or Belgium, summer of 1940. Two German soldiers inspect a captured Vickers Light Tank Mk. VIC. Of about 400 Vickers Mk. VIs deployed by the British Expeditionary Force, only six made it back to England. The British had a penchant for light tanks, just like many other countries in the 1930s. They were intended as support for infantry attacks (especially in the colonies), as well as for reconnaissance. They were armed with machineguns and had thin armor, and weren’t intended to combat other tanks. As the expert says in the video below, they were pretty rubbish when it came to combat.

The Germans, true to form, adopted almost all captured equipment they thought they had use for. Designated “Leichter Panzerkampfwagen Mk.VIC 736(e)”, they were used (in addition to the original tasks) for policing rear areas and as training vehicles, and were issued to second rank divisions. Some were converted to 105mm light howitzer carriers designated as 10.5cm leFH 16 auf Geschutzwagen Mk.VI(e), and ammunition carriers designated as Munitionspanzer auf Fahrgestell Mk.VI(e). As reconnaissance tanks, they got the designation Beobachtungspanzer auf Fahrgestell Mk.VI(e).

The tank weighed about five tons depending on version, and was capable of a road speed of 55 km/h (40 km/h in terrain). Production ceased in 1940 after 1682 vehicles had been built (all versions). It saw action in the Arab-Israeli War in 1948 before being retired for good. The video below is about the Mk. VIB, but the comments applies to the Mk. VIC, too.

 

Thanks to Axis History Forum member peeved for help in identifying the tank.